THE FLEET'S PRODIGIOUS JOURNEY began in darkness at 3 a.m. on Sunday 3 May 1787. Phillip's instructions were to punctuate the voyage with calls at the Canary Islands, at Rio de Janeiro, his old Portuguese home base, and then at Cape Town. Behind these orders was fear of that great eroder of human flesh and spirit, scurvy, almost inevitable on even shorter voyages than this.
The run down the Channel took three days, with great sickness amongst the women on the Lady Penrhyn, the new-built ship whose timbers were still howling and settling and whose master, William Sever, was unfamiliar with her. Uncontrollable seasickness filled the low-roofed prison deck with its acid, gut-unsettling stench, and spread rapidly down the crammed lines of women starboard and port. On top of that, the escort Hyena had to take the Lady Penrhyn in tow to keep her up to the other ships.
Phillip was to find a companion spirit in John Hunter, captain of Sirius, Phillip's flagship. The sea had claimed Hunter's ultimate affection over competing passions for music, the classics, and the Church of Scotland. His first shipwreck, when sailing with his father, a ship's master, had been on a howling Norwegian coast at the age of eight. Once rescued, he had been saved from hypothermia by being clasped to a Norwegian woman in a warm bed, an experience which seems to have reinforced his suspicion that the sea was his true mother. Just over fifty and no ninny, he was the sort of officer others might describe as the navy's backbone.
The fleet hove to some two hundred miles west of the Scilly Isles and Hyena departed, taking Phillip's last dispatches. By now, Phillip knew that there was a range of speed and performance between the various ships. Apart from the Lady Penrhyn, the transports Charlotte and the Prince of Wales were slowed by heavy seas, and their convicts suffered the worst discomfort and seasickness in storms. The deep-laden store ships, Borrowdale, Golden Grove, and Fishburn, were susceptible to storm damage to masts and rigging. The Alexander, Scarborough, and Friendship were the three fastest transports. The handiest sailer was the little snub-nosed tender, Supply, which could reconnoitre ahead and double back to round up stragglers, but could safely carry little sail in really big seas. At first, Lieutenant King could not see much sense in Supply, since she was not big enough to carry a significant amount of stores. But he now thanked God for the existence of this tough and speedy little sloop.
By 3 June, the eleven ships reached Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, after a journey on which the irons of the convicts, except those under punishment, had been totally removed, and a routine for allowing the transportees on deck in fine weather had been established.
Sailors generally had two hammocks, which were regularly scrubbed and aired each day in nets hung in the rigging around the deck. In well-run ships, convict bedding was also aired and dried in the nets. But despite all such care a number of males had died on the Alexander, which was the unhealthiest ship in the fleet. She had lost twenty-one convicts to fever, scurvy, pneumonia, and the bloody flux (dysentery) in the few weeks since sailing and had a further twenty-one on the sick list.
South of Teneriffe the weather was extremely hot and characterised by calms and rain storms. In the calms, amidst the cram of bodies, the air below decks reached fierce temperatures, and a skirt of stinking waste and garbage surrounded each ship. Wind sails were rigged like great fans, and swung across the deck to blow air below, and while the convicts exercised or slept on deck, gunpowder was exploded again in their prison to disperse evil vapours. The marine officers on Friendship found the ship infested with rats, cockroaches, and lice, but the women convicts still needed to be battened down on their ill-ventilated deck at night, to prevent “a promiscuous intercourse taking place with the marines.” By such a term, prostitution might have been meant, yet the rigour of separation between the sexes must have varied from ship to ship, to account for the pregnancies of convict women. In prison and on the convict decks of the fleet, experienced women tried to avoid pregnancy. They delayed weaning if they already had a child, practised coitus interruptus, pleaded illness, including syphilis, and so on. Patent abortion medicines were advertised in newspapers, but the young women of the transports had no access to them. As for condoms, they were available in London but were expensive, and were gentlemen's devices, designed more to avoid venereal disease than to prevent pregnancies.
Despite the ban on prostitution, there were so many alliances between convicts, male and female, and between marines and sailors and sundry women aboard, that perhaps Phillip and the Home Office, within the bounds of what they saw as proper discipline, were willing for such associations to occur. Some officers acquired housekeeper-lovers from amongst the convict women, and on at least some of the ships, sailors were permitted to attach sea-wives to themselves. There was a common Georgian belief, subscribed to by James Boswell, that sexual abstinence induced gout. The sailors were taking no risks.
Lieutenant Clark on Friendship hated the disorderly women and ordered four of them to be put in irons for fighting, which must have been a hard punishment in that climate. “They are a disgrace to their whole sex, bitches that they are. I wish all the women were out of the ships.” Clark was gratified that the corporal ordered to flog one London prostitute and Mercury escapee, Elizabeth Dudgeon, later in the voyage “did not play with her but laid it home.” With the same ink and at the same hour he raised fervent thanks that God had sent him his wife: “Oh gracious Jesus, in what manner shall I humble myself to make you a recompense for giving me so heavenly a gift?” By contrast, Liz Barber, a less than heavenly gift, abused Surgeon Arndell and invited Captain Meredith “to come and kiss her cunt for he was nothing but a lousy rascal as were we all.”
But apart from the ten or twelve women who were always in trouble on the Friendship, the others behaved well, which might have meant in part that they were amenable to discipline but also to washing and sewing and other chores and demands.
Phillip knew from the stories of Mercury and Swift how endemic the dream of mutiny was amongst the convicts, the chief fantasy, and an attractive one in the northern part of the Atlantic from which, in the schemes of mutiny, the newly self-liberated American colonies, champions of men's rights, could most easily be reached. Lieutenant Clark and Captain Meredith on Friendship were very concerned; they asked the master, Captain Walton, to go on board Sirius and tell Phillip they doubted whether his order to unchain the convicts for their health's sake was wise. “There are so many Mercurys on board of us,” Clark confided to his wife, Betsy Alicia, by letter. That same day, a convict came to the commanding marine officer on board the Scarborough and told him that two men were planning to take the ship over. Neither of them had been involved in earlier mutinies, but they were both sailors and knew how to work a ship. One of them, Farrell, had been transported for stealing a handkerchief—in his case, a handkerchief with a value of one shilling. The two men, Farrell and Griffiths, both in their twenties, were brought aboard the Sirius to have two-dozen lashes inflicted by the bosun's mate. Both men “steadfastly denied the existence of any such design as was imputed to them.” Nevertheless, they were transferred to yet another transport in the fleet, the Prince of Wales, and put under special watch.
A group baptism on the Lady Penrhyn, with the Reverend Johnson, the chaplain appointed to New South Wales, performing the rite, was an event of “great glee” with “an additional allowance of grog being distributed to the crews of those ships where births took place.” But crossing the equator, the Lady Penrhyn and the Charlotte came close to colliding with each other, as the Lady Penrhyn's crew were distracted by the ceremonies of an officer or bosun dressed as King Neptune apparently rising from the sea to chastise and initiate those who had never crossed the line before.
On 5 July, Phillip felt it necessary to reduce the water ration to three pints per person per day, all of it going to consumption, leaving everyone to have recourse to salt water for washing clothes and bathing. Sometimes garments were washed by being dragged on a rope overboard, and one sailor lost a pair of breeches to a shark this way. A convict was washed overboard and lost when he went on deck to bring in the washing during the sudden onset of a storm.
On the Prince of Wales Jane Bonner, married, one child, guilty of stealing a coat, was hit on the head when a longboat fell from the booms where the ship's carpenter was caulking it. She died of brain injuries six days later. On matters of general health, Chief Surgeon John White and his three assistants were rowed around the fleet when weather permitted to consult with captains and such resident surgeons as Bowes Smyth of the Lady Penrhyn, and to inspect health arrangements or undertake care of the convicts.
Where the north-east trades blew, ships were capable of making good time, as on 17 June, when Friendship logged a refreshing 174 nautical miles to the Sirius's 163. For the fast sailers to keep in touch with the slow ones was tedious, and Phillip was already contemplating splitting the flotilla into fast and slow divisions. Even on a bad day for the whole fleet, 26 June, Friendship made 29 nautical miles to Sirius's 25.
The run was good to Rio, and on 5 August the fleet stood in the estuary off that city. Private Easty on Scarborough was impressed with the thirteen-gun salute from the fort, and the similar response from the Sirius. The total deaths since embarkation were twenty-nine male and three female prisoners, which was considered an excellent result. The convoy had been able to keep in contact, although the journals of the gentlemen indicate that the Lady Penrhyn was continually lagging.
The Portuguese filled the first boat to return to the Sirius with fruit and vegetables “sent as presents to the Commodore from some of his old friends and acquaintances.” On the second morning, when Phillip and his officers paid a courtesy call on the Viceroy, a guard stepped forward and laid the national colours at Phillip's feet, “than which nothing could have been a higher token of respect.” That night the town was illuminated in his honour. The English officers could go where they wanted within the city, without escorts. One evening a Portuguese soldier presented himself to Phillip and asked to be allowed to sail to New Holland with the expedition. Phillip would not hear of it and had him dropped off onshore, “but with great humanity permitted him to be landed wherever he thought he might chance to escape unobserved, and have an opportunity of returning to his duty.”
Collins tells us that while in harbour in Rio, every convict was regularly given one and a half pounds of fresh meat, a pound of rice, a suitable portion of vegetables, and several oranges. Sailors returning from jaunts ashore brought a great number of oranges and even pelted the convicts with them. The Viceroy set aside Enxadas Island to allow the expedition to set up tents for the sick and use as a shore base. Lieutenant Dawes of the marines also set up a temporary observatory there. In February 1787, the Astronomer Royal, Dr. Neil Maskelyne, proposed adaptations for three telescopes and acquisition of a 10-inch Ramsden sextant to serve Lieutenant William Dawes, surveyor and astronomer, in making nautical and astronomical observations on the voyage to Botany Bay “and on shore at that place.” Dawes was one of the Portsmouth division of marines, a spiritual young man who had been wounded in a sea battle with the French in Chesapeake Bay during the war in America, and had volunteered for New South Wales out of scientific rather than military fervour. The chief astronomical need was to check the Kendall chronometer of the Sirius.The correct local time could be found instrumentally from reading the sun and by fixing the exact time of an eclipse of Jupiter's third moon and comparing it with the astronomical tables which gave Greenwich time for such eclipses. By this means, Dawes found that there had been only an insignificant loss of clock time since leaving Portsmouth.
Also ashore, young Surgeon White watched religious processions, and was astonished but titillated by the fact that there were many well-dressed women in the crowd, “quite unattended” and trawling for lovers. He lingered by the balconies of convent novices and students, girls “very agreeable in person and disposition,” and felt a sentimental passion for one in particular. He also performed a demonstration leg amputation according to the controversial Allenson's method on the patient of an eminent Portuguese military surgeon, Dr. Ildefonso. Ildefonso and his juniors were not impressed by the procedure but were happier about the quicker healing the method seemed to promise.
When the fleet departed after a fortnight, the Viceroy saluted Phillip with twenty-one guns, and could be forgiven for wondering whether such a varied and implausible expedition would be heard from again.
ON THE LONG STRETCH between Rio and Dutch-controlled Cape Town, rancour, ill temper, cabin fever, and paranoia overtook many of the officers, while similar grievances and discomfort filled the prison decks. In late September, on the deck occupied by marines and female convicts, a sea broke and washed all parties out of their bunks. It must have been harder still for the male convicts on a lower deck. But the trip was relatively brisk. On one day Friendship logged 188 nautical miles, and Cape Town, the Dutch headquarters in Africa, was reached on 11 November.
Here, a convict tambour maker or embroiderer named Eve Langley, sailing on the Lady Penrhyn with her small son, Phillip, gave birth to a daughter on a bed of clean straw in one of the shacks on deck. Phillip Scriven, a foremast hand, was listed as the father. There were no baby supplies or clothing aboard the fleet, and so as Surgeon Bowes Smyth of the Lady Penrhyn recorded, the women were reduced to “plundering the sailors … of their necessary cloths and cutting them up for some purpose of their own,” a comment that casts interesting light on the subtleties of power between the men and women aboard the Lady Penrhyn. The two leaders in this plunder were Anne Colpitts, a Durham woman whose own child, John, died on the voyage, and Sara Burdo, a young dressmaker guilty of having stolen from a Londoner who rejected her sexual advances. Both convict women would later be midwives in the colony, having helped the births of the Lady Penrhyn's young. According to good midwifery methods, the mother's belly after birth was made moderately firm by the application of a table napkin, folded like a compress, and secured by pinning the broad bands of the skirt or petticoat over it. And though the midwives would have collaborated with the surgeon, the reality was that most convict women trusted their midwives more than any male. Because of their “less exquisite feelings,” wrote Bowes Smyth, “the lower class of women have more easy and favourable births than those who live in affluence.”
The midwives must have been competent, for the Lady Penrhyn was the healthiest ship in the fleet. It also possessed more medical staff than any other—Surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth and two assistants. Nonetheless, the elderly woman named Elizabeth Beckwith, long afflicted with dropsy, would perish aboard. Hugh Sandlyn, a convict woman's son born in Newgate, had died early in the voyage, aged eighteen months. Jane Parkinson, a milliner and thief, was already sickening for her death at sea, when she would leave a young son, Edward, for the other Lady Penrhyn women to look after.
Above decks was a babble of complaint from animals. In the fleet, said another surgeon, George Worgan, “each ship is like another Noah's Ark.” Pet dogs roamed the decks. There were Captain Phillip's greyhounds and horses on Sirius, Reverend Johnson's kittens on the store ship GoldenGrove, as well as a number of newly purchased sheep, pigs, cattle, goats, turkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, rabbits, and pigeons penned in various structures on every deck. At the Cape of Good Hope, the women and some men aboard Friendship were transferred to other ships to make room for an additional intake of thirty-five sheep.
After leaving Cape Town, and sniffing the westerlies below Africa, Phillip divided the flotilla into two divisions, the first division to be led by the little Supply, to which Phillip now transferred. Its leading group was made up of the Alexander, the Friendship, and the Scarborough, now able to travel as fast as they liked. Visiting the Prince of Wales and Friendship by longboat, White found signs of scurvy amongst the women, particularly those who also suffered from dysentery. The symptoms were swelling and bleeding of the gums, a terrible breath which could make people wince even a considerable length away, pains in the joints leading ultimately to an inability to stand up, the appearance of large bruises on the flesh from the most glancing contact, an awful listlessness and a deadly depression, and finally the rupture of internal organs, internal bleeding, and death. He ordered the women dosed with essence of malt and good wine.
On the convict decks it must have been miserable, with the subAntarctic cold and the heaving seas of the roaring forties. Hail and snow came down, and officers like Clark were forced to wear a flannel waist-coat, two pairs of stockings, and keep their greatcoats on continuously. But the convicts generally had only their light clothing and their one blanket, and welcomed what crowded warmth they could generate. Ahead, amidst the squalls, lay the south end of Van Diemen's Land, and its perilous coasts.
The second division of ships suffered the same turbulent weather. On 19 December 1787, Surgeon Bowes Smyth recorded that “we spoke the Golden Grove, Captain Sharp, who informed us that Mrs. Johnson, the parson's wife, was very ill, and also that the parson's clerk, Mr. Barnes, was very ill.” On 10 January in the New Year, a great wave shook all the ships of the second division and split the foresail and mizzen-topsail on Golden Grove and entered the Johnsons' cabin windows, tearing them away and washing Mr. and Mrs. Johnson out of their bunks. “God of Oceans,” went one of Richard Johnson's prayers, “when will you bring us to a safe harbour?”
The first division sighted the south-west of Van Diemen's Land and its South Cape on 5 January. It was summer in the southern hemisphere, but it did not feel like it there, and patches of snow could be seen on high ground. Surprisingly, it was less than two days after the first division worked its way around South Cape that Sirius, with the help of its signal guns to attract the attention of other masters, and a large blackboard with the course chalked on it and hung over its stern, led the second division round and headed north. John White on Sirius, soon to be, aground, the surgeon with the most geographically extensive medical practice in the universe, saw “no hazard that attends making this land by day … as nature has been very particular in pointing out where it lies, by rocks which jut out into the sea, like so many beacons.” And he would see in a day or so that the New South Wales coast, though not without some shoals and perils, had a similarly frank coastline.
The fleet was now on the last leg towards fabled Botany Bay, using the charts made by Cook as their guarantee of safe arrival.