Chapter Six


THEY WERE CLOSE NOW, on 16 January in the New Year. Supply, Scarborough, Friendship, Alexander, the good sailers, were reaching northwards on the New South Wales coast. The seas and handsome terrain they looked out on had been viewed by a mere handful of Europeans. The many beaches and bays were marked by bold headlands and backed by blue mountain ranges. If the wind had favoured them and swung to the south, the first division might have made it into the longed-for port that very day.

On the cluttered 70-foot deck of Supply, with “a great sea running and cloudy dirty weather,” Phillip witnessed the third squally dawn in a row, with heavy rain and lightning to the north. Yet the unprecedented nature of where they were did not seem to worry him or his officers, or the weather present them with an omen. These were all practical men, and when it was found that the chronometer in the main cabin of Supply, the almighty time-keeper by which longitude was calculated, had stopped here on the coast of the Antipodes, after working for the whole eight months of the voyage, they merely started it again and factored in the time during which they guessed it had not been working.

On the ships trailing Supply that day, and further south on ships around the Sirius, the convict mess orderlies, frowsy from sleep, so accustomed to the seas that memory of the solid earth and stone gaols had been washed out of them, were at the cook-shacks to collect the morning meal. Forward, on each vessel, from the heads by the bowsprit, two hunched sailors crapped into the sea. All was normal and vaguely hopeful, yet tinged with the edginess of near arrival.

FOR THE FIRST DIVISION of the fleet, it was the morning of 18 January, when the wind shifted to the south-west and a hot breeze blew from an interior utterly unknown to any European, that they reached the neighbourhood of their landfall, Botany Bay. Lieutenant King did not let any high emotion to do with historic beginnings enter his account of what happened on the afternoon of that day. He noticed the high chalk cliffs recede towards Red Point, named like many other topographic features by Captain Cook. Cook, who had come this way only once, had made such names both bywords for great distance and also a form of taming; he had reduced the coast to size with British tags. The officers took professional joy in seeing these comfortable reference points come up. “An eminence on the land … bore at this time W1/2 S 4 leagues which we take for a mountain resembling a hat which Captain Cook takes notice of.” Red Point was nine miles north of this, and then the southern point of Cook's Botany Bay, Cape Solander, named in honour of Sir Joseph Banks's Swedish assistant, was sighted. “It is impossible to miss this place with Captain Cook's description before one.”

The Supply hauled in for the harbour at a quarter past two in the afternoon of the next day. Lieutenant Ball, who commanded Supply under the overall direction of Phillip, anchored in the northern arm of the bay, so that the three closest convict transports following, Alexander, Scarborough,and Friendship, and then all the ships of the second division, would be able to see them from the entrance and be guided in.

How could the place not fail to disappoint the travellers' long-sustained expectation? No one on the Supply made exuberant statements about it. It lay in its afternoon, sultry light, not much elevation to it, despite all the great sandstone cliffs and headlands they had passed further south. It was in part a landscape of some shallow hills, eucalypt trees, and cabbage tree palms spread as in a park, with the grass soon to be called “kangaroo grass” growing between the trees. Otherwise, it was a country of low, indiscriminate earth, open ground in many places, with rank grass: the sort of country that promised there would be lagoons and swamps just behind the shore. Its sand beaches shone in the afternoon sun, but with an ambiguous welcome which hurt the eye.

As the Supply watched the earth, the inheritors of the earth watched the Supply. The Gweagal clan of the Eora language group occupied the south shore of the bay and wondered why, after many years, the sky had ruptured again and the risky phenomenon of a craft as large as an island had returned. The Bediagal on the north-west side of Botany Bay were galvanised by the same question. Old men and women began to sing songs of expulsion, and the young repaired spears, not taking for granted the animal gut and yellow gum which held the points of stone or bone in place, and tested throwing sticks for solidity. A young Bediagal carradhy, a man of high degree and preternatural physical courage, Pemulwuy, if not actually present, was sent a message that the manifestation was back again. Mothers and aunts counselled children to be wary. The last time one of these phantasms had appeared, it had been an uneasy business, but they had been able to expel the alien presences in the long run.

Though Prime Minister Pitt and Lord Sydney had authorised Phillip to look at this target coast as a vacancy, the people who had lived here since the last ice age had created their known earth, and whose ancestors had been in the hinterland for millennia longer still, had seen the scatter of ships and were sending reports ahead overland, clan to clan, of the astounding phenomenon they represented.

Modern dating methods show that the people who became the first natives of the Australian continent had crossed from the prehistoric south-east Asian district named Wallacea between 60,000 and 18,000 years ago, when the Arafura Sea was an extensive plain, when sea levels were 30 metres below where they are now, and there was a solid land bridge 1,600 kilometres wide between Australia and New Guinea. There was in that period a continent made up of Australia and New Guinea, their continental shelves and connecting lowlands, known to scholars as Sahul. Sahul's north-western coast received small numbers of individuals from Wallacea, possibly as few as fifty to a hundred people over a decade.

Eighteen thousand years ago, when the east coast of Sahul still ran from New Guinea to the southern tip of Tasmania and beyond, the coast Phillip was now approaching was a region of cold steppes and sub-alpine woodland. When the original settlers first explored the southern part of the continent, they may have encountered the 5-metre-long giant anaconda and the marsupial lion, the latter resembling a traditional cat, yet whose features also showed an obvious relationship to the kangaroo. The furs of marsupials were essential to the Aborigines of New South Wales at that stage. But now, for the uneasy observers ashore on this January day of 1788, ice existed only in tribal memory. The native coastline had stabilised in its present from about 7,000 years before, when the glaciers melted. As elsewhere on earth, innumerable camping places, stone quarries, burial grounds, and sacred sites were flooded by the sea. In compensation, the coast matured and developed, providing sandstone plateaus, mangrove swamps and wetlands, rock platforms, and beaches.

Now, as the fleet was delayed by northerlies off the coast, bushland and forest covered most of the eastern half of New South Wales. This was regularly set fire to by the lightning of the vigorous electric storms of the area, or by Aborigines using fire-stick farming—that is, using fire to flush animals out of the bush, but as a means of renewal as well. The ancestral beings, who had made the visible earth and its resources, expected the cleaning up and fertilisation wrought by the fire-stick. A number of Australian species of trees welcomed fire—the banksia, the melaleuca, the casuarina, the eucalyptus; and fire fertilised various food plants—bracken, cycads, daisy yams, and grasses. The fire-stick, in itself and as a hunting device, may have speeded the extinction of the giant marsupial kangaroo, the marsupial lion, the giant sloth, and other species now vanished from the coast the flotilla was following.

For other food sources, the Eora, the indigenous people of the language-grouping in the Botany Bay area, were able to trace the small, stingless native bees to their caches of honey in hollow trees. Fish and shellfish were plentiful, but sharks and stingrays were taboo and could not be eaten. “The Indians, probably from having felt the effects of their voracious fury testified the utmost horror on seeing these terrible fish,” said one officer. The shark and the stingray were clan totems of the coastal people; moreover, a subtle religious division into permitted and forbidden foods was apparent, and there were also prohibitions between individual men and women and their totem animals. One did not devour one's totem animal, whether bird, mammal, fish, or serpent.

As sweet as life might be on that coast for hunter-gatherers, the conditions for the development of a sedentary life did not exist. Perhaps only one of the grasses which were the basis for farming elsewhere grew here, and the only semi-domesticated animal was the native dog or dingo, which helped the people harry kangaroos, wallabies, and smaller game in return for meat at the evening fire. The Aboriginal population of the entire landmass and islands, in that last undisrupted week, stood at perhaps 750,000.

This New South Wales coast, which was as far as government or the Royal Navy would venture short of the ice of Antarctica, was the centre of all things for the people who saw the phantasms of the fleet pass by. They would have been astounded that there were, somewhere else, in remote, northern, unholy mists, members of their own species who considered their country a netherworld, a legislated form of hell. And until now, they had not had any reason to think their horizons were about to collapse in upon them.

ARTHUR PHILLIP KNEW FROM COOK'S journals to be wary and conciliatory. Cook had not received an open welcome in Botany Bay eighteen years before. Phillip's task was harder—rather than being merely an investigator here, he was meant to make a penal town somewhere in this bay. Relationship with the “Indians” needed to be as good as they could be for as long as possible. The instructions on this matter had been attached to his commission from the Crown and read: “You are to endeavour by every means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections, enjoining all our subjects to live in amity and kindness with them, and if any of our subjects shall wantonly destroy them, or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations, it is our will and pleasure that you do cause such offenders to be brought to punishment.”

At three o'clock the boats were hoisted out from the Supply. Arthur Phillip, Lieutenant King, Lieutenant Johnston, and Lieutenant Dawes all landed on the north side of the bay, “and just looked at the face of the country, which is as Mr. Cook remarks very much like the moors in England, except that there's a great deal of very good grass and some small timber trees.” A reliable young Cornish convict, James Ruse, had been moved to the Supply and would always claim he was the first ashore, wading in with Lieutenant Johnston riding scarlet and glittering on his back.

They searched that afternoon for a stream of freshwater, but could not find one. This must have concerned Arthur Phillip, though he was not easily daunted. Returning to the boat sweaty, Phillip spotted a group of natives on another beach and ordered the boats ashore at a point where two canoes lay. The natives immediately rose to their feet and called to the newcomers “in a menacing tone and at the same time brandishing their spears or lances.” The usual testing rituals of arrival took place. Phillip showed them some beads, and ordered one of the seamen to tie them to the stern of a canoe, and made signs that they would be obliged if the natives could guide them to water. Arthur Phillip, as a founding act of good-will, was carried ashore by a convict, and walked towards them alone and unarmed, and a male native advanced and made signs that he should lay the gifts on the ground. The native, edgy and trembling, came forward and took them, and then he and others came near enough to be given looking glasses and other wonders. Soon, Phillip became aware that a missing front tooth of his own coincided with the tooth Aboriginal men lost in initiation, and this fact gave him a weight with the natives. The Eora directed the visitors round the sand spit where a good stream of freshwater came down to the bay from the hinterland. Perhaps if the intruders were given water, they would depart.

Phillip was already doubtful about this bay, its shallow anchorages and fluky winds, and about its capacity to support an illsupplied penal settlement. But he waited and kept his counsel. He was a man who would rather carry all of a burden than share it in easy conversation.

The next morning the other ships of the first division came round Cape Solander. They had made very good time. On Friendship, Lieutenant Ralph Clark rejoiced in the fair wind after a lot of overnight lightning, thunder, and downpour. He had his things ready for landing, having acquired from the carpenter a deal box to hold the butterflies he planned to collect “for you my dear woman.” All night in his little hutch he had been haunted by dreams of his Betsy Alicia—that he was walking with her and that she was wearing a riding habit. At six o'clock that morning, the man at the masthead had called that he saw land on the port bow. Clark was pleased, since the sheep aboard, some of which he owned, had been living off flour and water and were in bad condition. Now he had the excitement of seeing the nearby land, and a great many natives at Cape Solander.

When the Friendship anchored at last, a boat crew from the Supply brought aboard some mown grass, and that seemed to have resonated with Clark as an event as astounding as the sight of land. For “I cannot say from the appearance of the shore that I will like it,” he noted.

Major Robbie Ross, commander of the marines, was now on the Scarborough with its big population of male convicts, and came ashore in time to take part in an expedition. Frustrated by shoals on the north side of Botany Bay and a brackish, boggy stream to the west, Ross and the others were sustained by sturdiness of soul, lack of imagination, and uneroded belief in Cook's hopeful reports of the place from eighteen years before, and went into an inlet on the south-west side of the bay and “ate salt beef and in a glass of porter drank the healths of our friends in England.”

There was a great shift of meaning commencing during those first hours of European permanency on the coast of New South Wales. At the end of a journey as long as a human gestation, the occupants of the ship were beginning to suspect that Botany Bay was a poor place, even though it had long since captured the imagination of the rest of the world. The animals Cook and Sir Joseph Banks found here or further north were nonpareils of the strange and exotic. On his journey through the Scottish Highlands in 1773, Dr. Samuel Johnson had a party trick— “imitating the newly discovered kangaroo: he stood erect, put out his hands like feelers, and gathering up the tails of his huge brown coat, so as to resemble the pouch of the animal, made two or three vigorous bounds across the room.” Hereafter, in the wider world, Botany Bay, renowned until now for the exotic, the furthest reach of human investigation and endeavour, famous for both botanic and zoologic conundra, would slowly become a name of scorn. As Robert Southey, sending up both the place and the proposed penal settlement at one hit, would write as doggerel during a pleasant evening with William Wordsworth,

Therefore, old George, by George we pray

Of thee forthwith to extend thy sway

Over the great botanic bay.

For the Gweagal and Bediagal clans of the Eora, a similar shift was in progress. It is as well to say here that the term Eora may have been merely a sample phrase from their language, and not necessarily what the region's natives called the language or themselves. Lieutenant King would mention that the people called themselves “Eora—Men or People,” and Eora or Eorah would be listed as a word for “people” in a vocabulary put together by Phillip and Collins. Collins defined the word Eo-ra as the name common to the natives of the area the fleet would settle. It may, however, have been the local language's word for “here” or “the people about here.” In any case, for the indigenous people, the ghosts were abounding. One day: one ship, one floating island, one population of ghosts with mysterious outer skins. The next morning: four islands and four populations of strangers. They had not multiplied in this manner in their earlier visitation, eighteen years past. And on the morning of 20 January, when Captain Hunter on the Sirius led his second group of transports around Cape Solander, there were eleven of these floating phenomena with their huge and inhuman wings, their spider-web rigging, and infestations of questionable souls aboard. Some Gweagal and Bediagal, related by marriage, assembled on the southern point of the bay and yelled, “Werre! Werre!” across the water. They were speaking a language which the British did not understand, but this was their first, undeniable message to the men of the fleet, and it meant “Get out! Begone! Clear away.”

But the officers did not imagine themselves trespassers, and the private marines and especially the convicts would have found such a description whimsical.

A more poetic European vision had entered Botany Bay on the just-arrived transport Charlotte, in the person of the young captain of marines Watkin Tench. Captain Tench was in his late twenties, son of a successful and well-connected Chester boarding school proprietor. During the American War he had been made a prisoner in Maryland for three months when his ship, Mermaid, went aground. Like Collins and other officers, he had volunteered for service on the fleet to get off half-pay. In his striving, often elegant, and curious-minded journal, Tench dared write rich prose for the arrival of this second division of ships. “ ‘Heavily in clouds came on the day,’ ” wrote Tench, quoting the English poet Joseph Addison, “which ushered in our arrival. To us it was ‘a great, an important day.’ Though I hope the foundation, not the fall, of an empire will be dated from it.” This sanguine young Englishman rejoiced, not with absolute numeric accuracy, that ‘of two hundred and twelve marines we lost only one; and of seven hundred and seventy-five convicts put aboard in England, but twenty-four perished en route.???” He celebrated the fact that even though portable soup (blocks of compacted dried meat and vegetables), wheat, and pickled vegetables had not been supplied to the fleet, and though a small supply of essence of malt had been the only anti-scurvy remedy put on board, such an extraordinary number of people had survived the voyage of what had been, for the second division of ships, exactly thirty-six weeks from Portsmouth, very nearly to the hour. Watkin Tench thought that the low casualty rate amongst the fleet was the work of a beneficent government, but he knew too that a great deal of the success had depended on Phillip's demands for equipment and clothing, his organisational flexibility, his refusal to sail until they were properly supplied.

“The wind was now fair,” Watkin wrote, “the sky serene, though a little hazy, and the temperature of the air delightfully pleasant: joy sparkled in every countenance and congratulations issued from every mouth. Ithaca itself was scarcely more longed for by Ulysses, than Botany Bay by the adventurers who had traversed so many thousand miles to take possession of it.”

The convict women and nearly all the men were still kept aboard their vessels, and while they exercised on deck in a pleasant evening, their boisterousness echoed through the cove. The some the country obviously seemed enormous enough to offer room for escape, and some who did not understand that wildernesses were to provide the walls here already planned decamping. Wild elation, dread, and depression competed for voice amongst these felons, some of them—despite Watkin Tench's sanguine view of their health—already pallid and doomed for the hospital tents Surgeons White and Balmain were erecting ashore. The wives of marines and their children also looked at the long dun foreshores of the bay with some surmise. They came from the same class as many of the convicts, and shared with them a capacity for stubborn acceptance.

Since the 190 or so convict women of New South Wales had been either in service or “single women of no trade,” they had few apparent skills to bring ashore. The one artificial flower maker lacked tools and materials; the book-binder was in a country without publishers. Esther Abrahams, a Cockney Jewess, asserted, as did a number of others, that she was a mantua-maker—a maker of fashionable veils—but there was no society here to whom to sell such a refinement. As for Rebecca Bolton of Prince of Wales, she was what was then called an idiot, and had been in prison four years, which helped explain her mental desperation. She was in frail health, as was her little daughter of four or five. Both of them were chaff for the penal experiment. Tamasin Allen and Mary Allen, a prostitute and her accomplice in stealing a large haul of diamonds, jewellery, and cash from one of Mary's upper-crust clients, by contrast had robust intentions of survival but little to offer except a questionable record. Tamasin was described in her trial papers as “a lustyish woman with black hair … she seems to be a drunkard and unreliable.” She would be one of the women who would face the lash in the colony then in prospect, but had she known about that, she would have shrugged it off in defiance. Ann Fowles was another apparently incorrigible type. Officials had already recommended that her four-year-old daughter, who had come with her on the Lady Penrhyn,be taken from her as “she was a woman of abandoned character,” and sent to Norfolk Island as a “public child.” It seemed that these women at least had not been chosen for their suitability as colonists.

Hunter and King surveyed the southern side of Botany Bay that same day, and, climbing a hill, found the soil an exceeding fine black mould, with some excellent timber trees and rich grass. John Hunter, that characteristic Royal Navy officer, in effect the captain of Phillip's small navy, possessed the rigour and energy which often went with Presbyterianism. He had served as a master, that is, navigator, since 1767, and then in the American War. Like Phillip, he was the sort of sailor whose career was rendered uncertain by lack of family connections, but he had become a post-captain through the influence of Lord Howe of the Admiralty, with whom he had served. And now he was bringing his talents and the template of his European mind, imbued with his study of the classics and theology, up a hill in New South Wales, carrying with him too, as they all did, a word-for-word description of what had appeared in Cook's published journal, which influenced him to see the place in the best terms possible.

Encounters with the natives remained edgy. King and Dawes met natives who “halloo'd and made signs for us to return to our boats … and one of them threw a lance wide of us to show how far they could do execution. The distance it was thrown was as near as I could guess about 40 yards.” King was alarmed enough to ask one of his marines to fire with powder only.

Lieutenant Bradley, Hunter's second-in-command, said that on the one hand boat crews “amused themselves with dressing the natives with paper and other whimsical things to entertain them.” But the next day, after a landing party began clearing brush from a run of water on the south side of the bay, the natives became “displeased and wanted them to be gone.”

By 22 January, when a seine net cast by a fishing party was hauled in and the natives saw the quantity of fish the sailors were dragging onshore with it, they “were much astonished which they expressed by a loud and long shout.” They took some of the fish away, as a matter of right in their eyes, but as a form of primitive pilferage as far as the English were concerned. The sort of ownership the natives were asserting in raiding the net is clear when read now, but was invisible to the European eye then.

The next day the natives struck the fishers with spear shafts, took fish, “and ran off with them sensible that what they had done was wrong,” wrote Lieutenant Bradley. It was not just that it suited the convenience of Phillip or the British government to ignore native ownership. Indeed, in other colonies, including Sierra Leone and the American colonies, and some years later in New Zealand, treaties and land transfers were transacted. It was that the material possessions of the Botany Bay people seemed so slight, and their presence so flitting, that it was taken for granted that they had not yet left the state of childlike innocence beyond which issues of title to fish, fowl, animals, and land became important. Phillip found no grounds to take a different view. “What they wanted most,” he reported, “was the greatcoats and clothing, but hats was more particularised by them, their admiration of which they expressed in very loud shouts whenever one of us pulled our hats off.”

One day the Eora people indicated that they wanted to know the gender of the men in the boats, “which they explained by pointing where it was distinguishable.” It became obvious to King that they thought the men were women, since they had no beards. “I ordered one of the people to undeceive them in this particular, when they gave a great shout of admiration and pointing to the shore, which was but ten yards from us, we saw a great number of women and girls with infant children on their shoulders make their appearance on the beach, all in puris naturalibus pas mëme la feuille de figeur [completely naked, without even a leaf to cover themselves].” The natives had brought forth their women, thinking that the arrival of these pale spirits might have had something to do with a need of sex. The native males made it clear by their urgings that the men in the longboats could make free with the women onshore. “I declined this mark of their hospitality,” said King. With a Low Church mixture of prudery and prurience, he urged a particular young woman to put her baby down and wade out to his boat, where she “suffered me to apply the handkerchief where Eve did the fig leaf.”

Elders and tribesmen would have found the appearance of a flaccid ghost penis fascinating, but they would have been confused when the British refused a perfectly good opportunity to exercise these organs, to sate themselves, and withdraw to sea at last. As for the Aboriginal women, these figures to whom they offered themselves were more virtual than real. Since the great sexual sins of Aboriginal society were to have sex within forbidden blood limits—though adultery did bring its own private and public scorn and punishment—these pale people with their strange outer skins did not fit into the Eora world scheme. A dalliance with such phantasms had no moral or tribal meaning. That King should then invite a young woman out to his boat and affix a broad white bandanna over her thighs must have seemed a mystifying denial. It must have struck the Gweagal and Bediagal that these were people whose desires took considerable subtlety to discern.

Watkin Tench would initiate his own adventures ashore by landing from the Charlotte with a seven-year-old boy, the first child to disembark. Edward Munday, son of Private John Munday, certainly enchanted the natives. Tench undid the child's shirt and exposed his chest to show the natives his white flesh, and an old man came up and touched the child on the head and took an acute interest in him, trying to learn something about the newcomers from his demeanour. But in the end, it was “Wer-re” or “War-re” again. On his next landing Tench saw a scene that was always enacted early in imperial encounters with natives: an officer fired at a shield, placed as a target, with a pistol. “The Indians, though terrified at the report, did not run away, but their astonishment exceeded their alarm on looking at the shield, which the ball had penetrated.” Such shots were usually a demonstration in good faith, but in practice often served as a prelude to worse things. To reassure them that he did not intend to put a hole in them, the officer walked away whistling the then popular tune named “Malbrook.”

Later, in his glossary of Aboriginal words, Captain David Collins would also list the word wo-roo-wo-roo to mean “go away.” The number of languages spoken on the continent of Australia in 1788 was about 250, but there were many dialects for each language. These indigenous languages tended to use the blade of the tongue against teeth and hard palate to create a far greater range of consonants than in English. Australian languages often had six nasal sounds, where English just has m and n. The sibilants, such as s and sh, were, however, totally absent in Australian languages. Later, Phillip's officers would chuckle at a visiting native's incapacity to say “candle-snuffer.” Words showed case, tense, and mood by the addition of meaningful segments, which created very long words and names. Woolawarre Boinda Bundabunda Wogetrowey Bennelong, for example, was the name of the native who would attract the officers' amusement over the candle-snuffer.

Just as the language had subtleties, Surgeon Bowes Smyth from the Lady Penrhyn admired the subtleties of the native lances, particularly the ones with the bone of stingray at one end and oyster shell at the other, and acquired one in return for a looking glass, each side being happy with the transaction. The bay was rich in stingrays, which basked on its shallow, shelving waters, and indeed Cook had at first named the place Stingray Bay.

Generally, though, for the officers, the expectation of finding Botany Bay the place of marvels which Cook and Banks declared it to be was challenged by the realities of their first reconnaissances. For example, a sentence in Cook's journal ran: “We found also interspersed some of the finest meadows in the world; some places however were rocky, but these were comparatively few.” But what Cook really wrote had in fact been edited for the potential titillation and entertainment of readers who would never have to visit the place. The original entry in Cook's journal was this: “I found in many places a deep dark soil which we thought was capable of producing any kind of grain, at present it produceth besides timber as fine meadow as ever was seen. However, we found it not all like this, some few places were very rocky, but this I believe to be uncommon.”

Phillip's landing parties could not find the “finest meadows in the world” which made it to publication. Even Watkin Tench was typical of the general discontent about this place. “Of the natural meadows which Mr. Cook mentions near Botany Bay, we can give no account,” he would write after some months, recalling the disenchantment of those first Botany Bay hours. Surgeon White's final judgment would be: “Botany Bay, I own, does not, in my opinion, by any means merit the commendations bestowed on it by the much lamented Cook.”

VIRTUALLY AS SOON AS THE storeship Golden Grove anchored in Botany Bay, the Reverend Johnson was rowed across to the Lady Penrhyn to christen a newborn child named Joshua Bentley, who could, with hindsight, be counted the first white Australian. His mother, Mary Moulton, had been tried at Shrewsbury in March 1785 for burglary with a value of 61 shillings, and sentenced to transportation for seven years, having been originally sentenced to death. By the time she left England on the Lady Penrhyn, she was twenty-nine and had already served four years.

When King got back to the Supply after one of his energetic reconnoitres of the bay on the afternoon of 21 January, he heard the news: Phillip intended the next day to go on an exploration of the far less famous inlets north along the coast, named in turn by Cook as Port Jackson and Broken Bay. It had taken Phillip just three days and a few insomniac nights to decide that, if at all possible, he would renounce the most famous inlet in the outer world. He did not, however, set out with an outright belief that shifting was inevitable. If he did not find anywhere better, he would set up house at Point Sutherland, just inside Cape Solander, the southern point of Botany Bay, where clearing work was already proceeding. But that was a place difficult of access from ships, and seemed far too small to support the envisaged town.

Three longboats were prepared with three days' provisions for scouting up the coast. Arthur Phillip was to be accompanied by Captain Hunter and Captain Collins, by Lieutenant Bradley and a small party of marines spread throughout the three open boats. Putting out of the bay by dark on Monday morning, they found there was only a gentle swell as light came up on the aquamarine Pacific Ocean. It would be a witheringly hot day for the transports anchored in Botany Bay, but there was a sea breeze on the coast for Phillip's rowers. One of those who rowed the governor's longboat was the former American revolutionary soldier and now British seaman Jacob Nagle. Nagle's father had been a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and in 1777 Jacob, fifteen years old, joined his father in the field. When he was eighteen, Jacob Nagle served in a number of American naval vessels and privateers, until captured by the Royal Navy with seventeen fellow American sailors and transferred to HMS Royal Oak. He and his comrades found themselves perforce somewhere between prisoners of war and pressed members of the Royal Navy. The end of the Revolutionary War brought him to Plymouth and his journal implies that circumstances beyond his control kept him from returning at once to America. He formally joined the Royal Navy more or less as a means of working his way home, but it was a long process which he seemed pleased enough with as he dug his oars into the spectacular azure sea off New South Wales.

Sandstone cliffs interspersed with beaches and headlands marked the way north. Several parties of Aboriginals cried out to the three open boats as they proceeded along the coast, yelling, “Wer-re! Wer-re! Wer-re!” in emphatic tones. That afternoon, Phillip entered the heads of Port Jackson, a dimple on Cook's map of this coastline, named to honour the judge-advocate of the Admiralty but not investigated by Cook when he made his way up the coast in 1770. The great sandstone cliffs near the entrance decreased in size to become the weathered south head, whereas the north side displayed perpendicular heights. At some later stage, these gates to Port Jackson would be capitalised as South and North Head.

Phillip's boats ran around the southern head, up the middle of the tide rushing in from the Pacific, until they found themselves in a wide, bright blue bowl of sparkling water that stretched away particularly on the south side. The foreshores of Port Jackson were cliffs of sandstone thickly covered with dun green forest, interspersed with yellow beaches. Phillip was already enthused, and the general sobriety of his prose would be swept aside when he later told Lord Sydney, “We got into Port Jackson early in the afternoon, and had the satisfaction of finding the finest harbour in the world, in which a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security.” It was a sentiment which, coming from him, would certainly make his masters take notice. Not “one of the most accommodating anchorages one could encounter”; not “where some hundreds of ships might ride.” But absolutes: “the finest harbour in the world”; “a thousand sail.” The same number of sail Helen had launched in the war between Greeks and Trojans. The considered but exuberant sentiment would stand out unapologetically in the midst of Phillip's dutiful officialese, and it under-pinned his decisiveness in declaring this, and not the great Cook's Botany Bay, as the destined place.

They circled to one of the north-side bays of this great, unexpected harbour, which Phillip then or later named Manly Cove, as a tribute to the general style and demeanour of natives who appeared on the beaches that afternoon. Then, in the evening, they headed southwards down the harbour and landed at a place within the south head which they inevitably named Camp Cove, as a result of their pitching tents on a pleasant beach there. Nagle was impressed by the busyness of it all—marine sentries were put out and sailors were variously employed raising tents, making fires, throwing the seine into the harbour for fish. They had been the second set of Europeans into Botany Bay, but they were the very first people from the northern world to take their rest in Port Jackson.

AT FOUR O'CLOCK in the morning, that keen taskmaster Arthur Phillip had them up again, on their oars, with one boat in the lead sounding the way from one bay of Port Jackson to another. “We eat our breakfasts on our seats and pulled all day,” said Nagle.

The broad sweep of Port Jackson ran away pleasingly southwards, with much better soundings than Botany Bay. By late afternoon they reached a cove some seven miles inside the harbour of Port Jackson. This place gave excellent soundings close to shore—in fact, its good anchorages had been gouged out by a vanished glacier. The official party landed on the west side of this inlet, under bushy platforms of rock. They walked around to the head of the cove where the ground was level. There were scattered large eucalypts, cabbage tree palms, and low undergrowth, but more elevation and an utterly less swampy atmosphere than at Botany Bay. A good stream densely lined with ferns ran down the centre of the land and disgorged in the cove. It was pristine and plentiful even then, at the height of summer. The ridge on the eastern side struck Phillip and others as a potential site for the public farm.

Nagle, being the boat-keeper, had to remain aboard while the gentlemen made their reconnaissance, but he spent the time fishing and pulled up a bream. Returning, the governor and his party were in good form, Phillip very pleased with the cove. There was no need to go and look at Broken Bay to the north of Port Jackson. “As a situation for a town, he was determined to settle in this cove.” He saw the bream, which lay silver in the stern like a good sign, and asked who had caught it. Nagle admitted it was his.

According to Nagle, Phillip came up with the name for the inlet itself, saying, “Recollect that you are the first white man that ever caught a fish in Sydney Cove where the town is to be built.” Perhaps the decision to name the cove to honour the Home Secretary was as instantaneous as that. But it was a wise move for an uncertain expedition. A politician was less likely to forget a place named to honour him, a place whose deterioration might become a reflection on him. Phillip intended to name the township itself Albion, an ancient name for England, imbued with a certain holiness. But highfalutin Albion would never quite stick for the settlement, and the convicts and soldiers would use the name Sydney Cove, or Sydney Town, or simply Sydney for their penal municipality.

It already had a long-established Eora name—the Cadigal clan to whom it belonged called it Warrane. This whole country of vivid blue skies and water, sandstone headlands and ridges covered in vegetation, sandy bays and ocean beaches backed by marshland, tidal lagoons, and mangrove swamps, made the Eora a people united by salt water and a bounty of protein from the sea, from Port Jackson lying inside its heads Boree and Burrawara, from Kamay, their name for Botany Bay, and from the hinterland bush. By the standards of many of the earth's other nomadic peoples and by comparison with the more exacting conditions faced by the desert tribes of the far interior, it was a sumptuous life. The Eora had no need to travel great distances in search of food and water.

But their good fortune had passed. For longer than any other population of Homo sapiens, the ancestors of the Aboriginals were genetically and culturally cocooned from the rest of the world, and were right to suspect the freight of these ships. Phillip's sailors, soldiers, and convicts were walking incubators for viruses and bacteria barely before present on this coast. These micro-organisms too were looking for a new landfall and had the power to descend upon and mar the planet as known and cherished by the coastal clans.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!