Chapter Seven


PHILLIP, HAVING REACHED THE HUGE harbour named Port Jackson and found a cove within it which he named for Sydney, came back to the ships in Botany Bay, and told their captains they would be sailing a final leg to take possession of it all.

Marine Captain Collins, who was to be the judge-advocate, was relieved, even though some trees had been felled at Point Sutherland and a sawpit dug just in case a better place could not be found. But, “had we been compelled to remain in Botany Bay, the swampy ground everywhere around it threatened us with unhealthy situations; neither could the shipping have ridden in perfect security when the wind blew from the south-east.”

At first light the next morning, 24 January, when on Supply the stock was being watered, and everyone exhilarated at news of the coming move, the watch saw two ships just off the coast, trying to work their way into the bay. On the Charlotte, Watkin Tench thought the look-out who first announced the two new vessels was having delusions. Amongst the officers visiting each other for breakfast, there were a number of wild surmises. “Of what nation they could be, engaged the general wonder for some time, which at last gave way to a conjecture that they might be the French ships.”

At first Ralph Clark had hoped that they were ships from England; indeed, that idea ran through the fleet very quickly, and even the hope that they had been sent with a general pardon for all convicts and to order their return to England rocketed around the prison decks. Or else, it was surmised, the two might be back-up supply ships. But a white pennant similar in shape to that of a commodore in the Royal Navy—the sort of pennant the Admiralty had denied Phillip—confirmed that they were a party of whom Phillip had already heard something. They comprised the expedition of the Comte de La Pérouse, who had set out from France nearly three years earlier to explore the Pacific, and who had preposterously turned up here just as the British were ending their brief dalliance with Botany Bay.

Phillip knew of La Pérouse's reputation, that he had fought and been wounded in the Seven Years' War, and then as part of naval operations in North America in 1782 had invaded Hudson Bay. This was a famous exploit which he had followed up by gallantly offering the English in the two forts he captured supplies to last them through the winter. (His record with native peoples, however, would not do him as much credit.)

The French government had decided in the mid-1780s that they would follow up the areas of obscurity left over from Cook's voyages. Louis XVI took a hand in drafting the plan and itinerary, and gave La Pérouse an audience before he sailed. By the time he appeared off Botany Bay, the Comte's two ships, La Boussole and L'Astrolabe, had doubled Cape Horn, refitted in Chile, sailed to Hawaii and then to Alaska, refitted again at Monterey, discovered a number of previously uncharted islands, surveyed the coast of Korea, and proved Sakhalin to be an island. Heading south again into the Pacific, La Pérouse lost a shore party in Samoa when natives killed his second-in-command and eleven others. He was still mourning his good companion Captain de Langle when he appeared off Botany Bay, and a French monk-scientist, Father le Receveur, one of two priests on the ships, fatally ill from wounds received in the Samoan imbroglio, would go to a grave on the shores of Botany Bay.

A ferocious nor'-easter would keep La Pérouse waiting two days to enter the port safely, and tested the seamanship of Supply and the other ships as they tacked out from beneath La Pérouse's shadow. But the Frenchman's presence made Phillip uneasy, since the French were the customary British enemy. “Before they learn there is a God,” said a German of the Georgian English, “they learn there are Frenchmen to be detested.” Was this French captain a mere expeditioner engaged in science, or did he too want to make a claim on this enormous coastline? The Sirius under John Hunter, outgunned by La Pérouse's two ships, nonetheless stayed on in Botany Bay another day to finalise the loading of equipment that had been taken ashore, while the little Supply led the convict fleet up the coast past the waiting French.

Staying for the moment in Botany Bay, Sirius sent off a boat to help guide the French ships into port and away from its southern shoals. Phillip wanted there to be no misunderstanding about peaceful British intentions towards the new arrivals. As La Pérouse entered Botany Bay, the Siriusitself was departing. “The two commanders had barely time to exchange civilities; and it must naturally have created some surprise in M. de La Pérouse to find our fleet abandoning the harbour at the very time he was preparing to anchor in it.” La Pérouse would later say that he had heard in Kamchatka of the intended British settlement at Cook's Botany Bay, and imagined that he might have found there an already built town and an established market.

In the teeth of the nor'-easter, Charlotte had great difficulty getting out of the bay, and the Prince of Wales and the Friendship had a collision, carrying away Friendship's jib boom. Shaken, and concerned that they might have all been drowned in Botany Bay, melancholy Lieutenant Clark was revived by the sight of Port Jackson as his transport rounded the south head and the great sheet of blue harbour opened to sight. “Port Jackson is a most beautiful place…. The River Thames is not to be mentioned to it, and that I thought was the finest in the world.” Watkin Tench, too, had relished the short trip up the coast, and the entry into Port Jackson that bright summer evening, into a bay superior “in extent and excellency to all we had seen before. We continued to run up the harbour about four miles, in a westerly direction, enjoying the luxuriant prospects of its shores, covered with trees to the water's edge, among which many of the Indians were frequently seen.”

This was the true arrival. The atmosphere of Sydney Cove was very different from that of shallow Botany Bay. Even so, on the convict decks, the hope had already formed that perhaps these two French ships a little way down the coast offered a means of escape, and that and other fantastical possibilities were discussed.

IF THE GWEAGAL AND BEDIAGAL of Botany Bay had been delighted to see the ships depart, they must have been equally confused when they were replaced by the French vessels; and the overland report of various visiting members of the Cadigal clan to the north that the original ships had merely gone on to infest Warrane, Sydney Cove, that choice inlet in the great harbour only seven miles to the north, must have been puzzling.

Before leaving Botany Bay, a number of marines and reliable convicts had been transferred to the Supply so that as soon as it came to anchor in Sydney Cove, work parties could be sent ashore. The first night at Sydney Cove was spent on board the ships, but the next day, 26 January, there were scenes of unprecedented activity in the little inlet. In one place, said Tench, was a party cutting down the woods, while elsewhere another group set up a blacksmith's forge. Soldiers pitched officers' marquees, while a detachment of troops paraded in bright sunlight and cooks lit fires. Sydney Cove faced north, and the general delineation of the future town was created by its geography. The officers and military were stationed around the banks of the stream, and some ground to the west was to be allotted to officers to grow corn for their animals. The stream which divided the cove would before any great passage of time come to be known as the Tank Stream, since reservoir tanks would be sunk along its banks to preserve its waters against drought.

On the very point of the west side Lieutenant William Dawes intended to set up his astronomical instruments for an unprecedented long-term study of the southern sky. He called the place Point Maskelyne, to honour the Astronomer Royal. On that west side too, on level ground beneath the sandstone rock ledges, Surgeon White's marquee-hospital was to be set up, near an area Phillip had already assigned to be the convict women's camp, the men's camp being closer to the military tents.

On the east side the ground was more open and suited for the public farm and the residences of the governor and his officials. Arthur Phillip's portable canvas house, provided by Messrs. Smith of St. George's Field at the cost of £125, was accordingly erected there, about 50 yards from the water, and a number of tents for trustworthy convicts and those considered not terminally corrupted were put up there too.

On that first day, 26 January, the governor found the time to sign a warrant giving his old friend, that ancient midshipman Harry Brewer, a new identity as provost-marshal of the colony, that is, the official who would bring charged offenders before the courts. So New South Wales began its long career as a place where men of no description could achieve a label, a post, a self-definition.

In a matter of mere days Sydney Cove would be altered, in Phillip's mind, and to an extent on the ground, from a garden of nomads to a municipality. To celebrate that shift, in the afternoon of 26 January, the crew of the Supply assembled at the point where they had first landed on the west side of Sydney Cove. The first flagstaff had been fashioned already from a sappy pole of eucalyptus, and the British flag being run up, the governor and the officers drank the healths of His Majesty and the Royal Family, and drank success to the new colony while the marines fired several volleys. It was a spirited but obscure gesture of empire. But after this rite, something of great significance to the watching Eora occurred—many of the white spirits slept ashore, and the night became theirs as well.

Lieutenant Clark was domiciled in a tent ashore with his livestock, consisting of two hens and one pig. He shared the tent with Tom Davey, the son of a Devon mill-owner who had used a lot of influence to get his son a commission in the marines. Lieutenant Davey, a toper, had been invalided out of America in 1780, and he and the sometimes prissily abstemious Clark made uneasy tent-mates. They let Lieutenant Timmins put his cot down there the first night as he had not yet got his tent up. Clark lay uneasy on his bedding. “In all the course of my life I never slept worse, my dear wife, than I did last night—what with the hard cold ground, and spiders, ants and every vermin that you can think of crawling over me, I was glad when sleep came. My poor pouch was my pillow.” He had come all this way in the hope of promotion to full lieutenant and perhaps captain, but he made a querulous occupant.

The disembarkation of the bulk of the troops and some male convicts occurred the next day, on feet unsteady after such long periods aboard. “The confusion that ensued will not be wondered at, when it is considered that every man stepped from the boat literally into the wood.”

On the basis of a few days' tentative exploration in the bush around Sydney Cove, a cultivated young midshipman, Daniel Southwell, declared that there was nothing deserving of the name of fruit in this new southern homeland. And with some injustice he declared that the country's quadrupeds were scarcely to be classed above vermin. But he was also resourceful enough to discover that there were many “salutary shrubs,” that balm could be milked from trees, and that a native spinach, parsley, and broad bean could be found. Many of the productions of the country, he said, were aromatic, and had medicinal properties, and could be used as fomenta, poultices on sores. An Irish surgeon named Dennis Considen also found various gums and leaves suitable for brewing a form of native tea. Both ashore and on the ships, the gentlemen were dining off fish, a beneficent influence on their digestive systems after the gut-abrading salt diet of the long journey.

The next morning, after their last breakfast on the ships, the remaining male convicts, except those who were too sick to walk, gathered up their clothing and bedding and were taken ashore. How strange to leave the familiar convict deck where they had been for so long, the narrow bed space, the penal womb, to be reborn ashore. Not that they were reborn entirely, since they brought their habits of mind and the Tawny Prince, the deity of the London canting crews, with them.

The talkers of cant, and the country fellows as well, had the urgent business of clearing ground and building themselves shelters, for there were no tenements or even tents for them. Whitehall had decided that it would be good exercise for them to have to construct their own habitations. Under instruction from country felons, they began putting together structures of wattle and daub—plaited panels of branches providing the walls and the cracks being filled in with daubed clay, of which there was a plentiful supply on the foreshore of Sydney Cove. Longboats were regularly sent to the north side of Port Jackson in quest of tall straight trunks of cabbage tree, which were used for the corner poles of huts. Roofs were of bark, thatch of cabbage tree fronds, or rushes plastered over with clay, or else with a limited supply of canvas from Sirius, which all made, said Collins, “a very good hovel.” There were sundry economic but flimsy structures standing within a few days. Many, however, would be destroyed on 2 February in a characteristically violent Sydney thunderstorm.

As for any dream of log cabins, those cutting the tall trees found the timber incorrigible—resistant to adze and plane, knotty, and with a mind of its own, a wood indifferent to European purposes. Hunter had hoped to use local eucalypts for repairs to Sirius, but found them unsuitable. “We were here in the middle of a wood in which were trees from the size of a man's arm to 28-feet in circumference, but they were either so very crooked, so rent or so rotten in the heart that we could scarcely get one sound or serviceable in a dozen.” Surgeon White, who had sufficient patients to attend to, would have time to declare of this wood that “repeated trials have only served to convince me that immediately on immersion it sinks to the bottom like a stone.” Clearly, it was not amenable.

Something else momentous but without ceremony occurred: public stock, including one bull, four cows, one bull-calf, one stallion, three mares, and three colts, largely acquired in Cape Town, was landed on the east side of the cove. A range of Western Europe's useful beasts was herded for the first time on this shore, the cattle under the care of a convict named Edward Corbett. The Eora had not presented themselves in any numbers at Sydney Cove yet, but to those natives who observed the inlet, these must have seemed drastically new items in zoology.

On 29 January 1788, when Phillip landed at Spring Cove just inside North Head, twelve natives crowded round the boats, anxious to inspect the newcomers, these owners of fabulous beasts and floating islands. It was the first contact between the races within Port Jackson. The sailors mixed with the native men, who were “quite sociable, dancing, and otherwise amusing,” but who kept their women well away. The whites could not persuade any of the natives to return with them to the settlement at Sydney Cove, but John Hunter found the Port Jackson inhabitants a “very lively and inquisitive race,” straight, thin, well-made, small-limbed, active and very curious.

Phillip was anxious to get the male convicts to work as soon as possible. In his ideal settlement, the convicts would work for the government from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon, with a half-day on Saturdays, and then have spare time to grow vegetables or pursue some other useful task thereafter. By 30 January, the first official work party of convicts was put to breaking ground for a garden and farm on the slope of the east side of the cove and just over the hill, in what became known as Farm Cove. As the tools were handed out by the conscientious and always stressed storekeeper, Andrew Miller, the convicts, directed amongst others by Phillip's manservant, Henry Dodd, showed little enthusiasm. The first breaking of sod by some anonymous shoveller in Sydney Cove was unattended by ceremony nor by wry comments on the fact that the earth furthest from Europe was being broken by Europe's lowest, most reviled hands. The urban convicts immediately proved themselves to be the worst, resistant to the cries of Dodd and the convict supervisors to put their bodies into what was to them the alien task of digging and farming. One convict supervisor was a young farmer named James Ruse, who had stolen two watches and stood trial on the edge of his native Cornish moors at Bodmin. But even men as likeable as James Ruse became the enemy to the other convicts once they were put in a supervisory role. The phrase “Kiss my arse!” was a popular one in Sydney Cove—it appears in the records of the judge-advocate's court as standard badinage, and may well have been uttered that penultimate January day in Farm Cove.

Even so, that first slovenly attempt at making a government garden had been a moment much looked forward to by Arthur Phillip, and was significant in that it was an early instance in which the realities of the new society were forced upon him. The earth proved rocky, full of lumps of sandstone. Officers, and the occasional convict stonemason, thought that the yellowish sandstone was comparable to Portland stone and suitable for working. But in the bush around the cove there were no limestone deposits for cement.

The lime trees, the lemons, the oranges, the figs and grapes which had been picked up in the Cape were slowly planted out in the government farm, but marsupial rats emerged at night and devoured them. Phillip's sleep beneath the canvas of his temporary residence was restless, since he suffered from these truths as much as from the chronic renal pain familiar to many of those subjected to the traditional salt-rich seagoing diet.

“The officers who composed the detachment are not only few in number,” Phillip would write to Lord Sydney, “but most of them have declined any interference with the convicts, except when they are employed for their own particular service.” He had imagined them willingly taking at least a monitoring and encouraging role in the work of convicts, but the officers believed “that they were not sent out to do more than the duties of soldiers.” So Phillip was obliged to put trustworthy convicts, such as the young, good-looking, well-liked Henry Kable, into supervisory roles. Kable would become a superintendent of the women prisoners.

The chief stickler on such issues remained Major Robbie Ross, commander of marines and lieutenant-governor. If he looked on Port Jackson and Sydney Cove and environs with a far more jaundiced eye than other officers, it was partly because he still found Phillip so annoyingly secretive about his intentions. Ross seemed lieutenant-governor in name only, and indeed, if Phillip died, he was according to the Orders-in-Council to be succeeded not by Ross but by Captain Hunter.

Ross was not such a by-the-book fellow, however, when it came to his personal life, and on Captain Shea's death soon after landing he made his own son, John Ross, a child just about to turn ten, a volunteer lieutenant, a rank he hoped would be confirmed ultimately by the Admiralty with appropriate back-pay benefits.

By contrast with feverish Major Ross, one historian has compared Phillip as a figure to the shark, a totemic animal of most coastal or island Pacific peoples, a master of life and bestower of death, inscrutable but reliable in all instincts, an enforcer of nature's rules, ruthlessly just to the level of blood sacrifice, and secretive by very necessity. Phillip was as mysterious a creature to Ross as he was to the convicts.

In the tents placed for the sick on the west side of the cove, beneath the rocky, bush-embowered sandstone ledges, Surgeon White admitted with some concern that, after the preventive medical success of the fleet, the numbers of sick were increasing. Scurvy, dormant on the ships, suddenly manifested itself in some of the convicts now that they had landed, and dysentery as well. This phenomenon of voyagers becoming ill when ashore after long journeys had been commonly noted. In that late January heat Surgeon White's sicker patients sat out on blankets in the sun and raised their mouths to bite off the air. White complained that “not a comfort or convenience could be got” for the sick in those first days, and his frustration was compounded by a quarrel with his querulous young Scottish assistant, William Balmain, a long-standing temperamental conflict that had begun with a professional argument in Portsmouth months before.

Lest the sailors on the two naval vessels—Sirius and Supply—begin to eat into the public stores not yet landed, and in preparation for any future travels, Phillip appointed for the use of Sirius an island not far from the public farm, a “Garden Island” as it soon became known, on which to grow vegetables for the crew's consumption. Soon Ralph Clark would start using another island, Clark Island, in Port Jackson, as a vegetable garden, and despite its relative distance down-harbour from Sydney Cove, it would sometimes be plundered by boat crews, and by hungry convicts swimming out there.

There was no priority to build a prison stockade in Sydney Cove. It had always been the plan that the environs would serve as walls to a great outdoor prison. The strange hinterland would be the chief guard and overseer. The First Fleet convicts were in the ultimate panopticon, where strangeness hemmed them in, and the sky aimed its huge blank blue eye at them. And yet from the day of landing onwards, a number of male prisoners walked the seven miles along a native track down to Botany Bay to bespeak the Frenchmen, and to plead political asylum or offer services as sailors.

Lieutenant Bradley, the teacher from the Naval Academy at Portsmouth, had been out surveying the shoreline of Port Jackson, and found on the north side twelve miles of snug coves and—as in Sydney Cove—good depths of water and freshwater streams entering many of the harbour's inlets. At his task, working in sounding from a longboat, he became aware that the northern shore of Port Jackson, and the southern shore too, down-harbour, carried a considerable population of Eora, “Indians … painted very whimsically with pipe clay and red ochre.” He came to notice that all the women they met had two joints at the little finger on the left hand missing. “It was supposed by some to be the pledge on the marriage ceremony, or of their having children.” Most of the men had lost a front incisor tooth and were highly scarred. Their spears were twelve to sixteen feet in length, and they walked very upright.

In between making his own observations, on 1 February Governor Phillip took his friend King aside by the door of his canvas house to discuss in detail the sending of a few people and some livestock in the Supply to settle Norfolk Island, the landfall 1,000 miles out in the Pacific which Cook had found and whose pines and flax plants seemed to offer the resource both of masts and of flax— “strategic commodities” as one historian would call them, as crucial as oil would be to later states. The recent problems of the Royal Navy in acquiring masts and canvas from the Baltic, and under the French blockade of the American colonies during the recent revolution in America, might be solved by Norfolk Island. Thus a potentially exciting opportunity to adjust the balance of the navy's resources seemed to lie ahead for young Mr. King.

But Phillip asked King, before he went away, to slip down south to Botany Bay and visit the illustrious Frenchman La Pérouse. The excursion was no doubt partly a spying expedition. Phillip wanted King to fool La Pérouse about the scale of the supplies the British in Sydney Cove possessed by offering him “whatever he might have occasion for.”

So at three o'clock in the morning of 2 February, King and the astronomer, Dawes, set out by longboat with some marines for Botany Bay. King would report that they were received aboard the French flagship by the Comte with the greatest politeness. After King had delivered Phillip's message, La Pérouse sent his thanks to the governor and made the same formal offers of help, La Pérouse playing the game Phillip had set up by saying exaggeratedly that he would be in France in fifteen months time and had three years' stores aboard, and so would be happy to oblige Mr. Phillip with anything he might want. He reported that a number of the male convicts had already visited and offered to serve aboard the French ships, or had pleaded for asylum, but that he had dismissed them all with threats and a day's provisions to get them back to Sydney Cove. If convict women, once landed at Sydney Cove, should present themselves, they would be treated in the same manner. Indeed, La Pérouse would write that “les déserteurs nous causèrent d'beaucoup d'ennui et d'embarras [the deserters caused us a lot of trouble and embarrassment].”

Yet a French-born convict named Peter Paris went missing and was hidden by sympathetic Frenchmen in La Pérouse's vessels. Having disappeared from Sydney Cove in February 1788, he would later be lost in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) with La Pérouse himself and all the other members of the French expedition.

Before that happened, however, Monsieur de Clonnard, the captain of the Astrolabe, made a return visit to Sydney Cove and again told Collins and others he was frequently visited by convicts. Abbé Monges, a scientific priest, accompanied de Clonnard on the visit, and Clark entertained the abbé by letting him look at the butterflies and other insects he was collecting for his wife, Betsy Alicia.

The stiff politeness between English and French had never been so remotely played out as here, in Warrane, Sydney Cove. The same could be said of the death in Botany Bay of the Franciscan friar-cum-scientist, Fr. Receveur, who would be buried on the foreshore and whose grave would be periodically tended by the British.

But basically, Phillip wanted the French gone, so that British New South Wales could establish itself in isolation.

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