AND NOW SOCIETY IN New South Wales really began. The convict women came up from the prison decks to be landed on 6 February. On Lady Penrhyn, Surgeon Bowes Smyth was happy to see them taken off in the ship's longboats, beginning at five o'clock in the morning. Those with goods, portmanteaux, or duffel bags full of clothing, decorations, and hats, which had been carried in the holds, were handed their property and toted or wore it ashore, in combination with their well-worn penal clothes. “Some few among them,” said Bowes Smyth, “might be said to be well dressed.”
How silent the ships must have suddenly seemed to the sailors, as if the life had gone out of them. The women were landed on the western side of Sydney Cove, where bedraggled canvas and some huts of wattle and bark delineated their camp. The last of them landed at six o'clock on what would prove to be a typical summer evening, still and hot, but promising a southerly squall. “The men convicts got to them very soon after they landed,” said Bowes Smyth. At the same time a number of suddenly lonely sailors from the transports also came ashore, bringing grog with them, and the marines were unable or unwilling to keep the women separate. Lady Penrhyn's crew, in particular, joined in one mass outdoor party, Sydney's first fëte of hedonism.
“It is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot which continued through the night,” wrote Bowes Smyth. The evening had turned humid and thunderous, the sentinel in front of Major Ross's marquee being so intimidated by lightning that he abandoned his post and ran in to join the gentlemen Major Ross and Lieutenant Clark as they were eating a wild duck Clark had shot that day. While the night proceeded, one potent stroke of lightning would kill six sheep, two lambs, and a pig, all belonging to Major Ross.
The great Sydney bacchanalia went on despite the thunderstorm. Fists were raised to God's lightning; in the name of the Tawny Prince and in defiance of British justice, the downpour was cursed and challenged, and survival and utter displacement were celebrated in lunges and caresses. “The scene which presented itself at the time, and during the greater part of the night, beggars every description. Some swearing, others quarrelling, others singing, not in the least regarding the tempest, though so great that the thunder shook the ship….”
There is little doubt either that some women were by dark safely with mentors. The forceful young Cockney Jewish convict Esther Abrahams was the passion of twenty-three-year-old Lieutenant George Johnston, a Scot severely wounded by the French as a fifteen-year-old in 1780 but now returned to manhood's bloom. The alliance between Scot and Jewish girl would ultimately lead to marriage. Jewish immigrants had begun arriving in England from Eastern Europe and Tsarist pogroms from the seventeenth century onwards, and settled in such London areas as Wapping and Spitalfields. Esther had been aged about twenty at the time of her seven years transportation for stealing lace to the value of 50 shillings, and at the time Lieutenant Johnston became interested in her, she had already given birth to a daughter in Newgate and brought her on board the LadyPenrhyn.
Margaret Dawson from the Lady Penrhyn, a seventeen-year-old Lancashire girl who had stolen clothing and jewellery to the death-earning value of 22 pounds 18 shillings from her master and taken it away with her on the Liverpool coach, joined her lover, Assistant Surgeon Balmain, a twenty-six-year-old Scot. Dawson must have been very pretty, since the Old Bailey trial documents explicitly note her youth and beauty as reasons for her being saved from the scaffold.
There were grounds for a riotous, desperate party of some sort. The women had been on their ships a deranging eight months. Their sentences were now terminal—they had arrived inextricably in this outlandish and humid summer place. They would be buried in sandstone-strewn earth in this unfamiliar and inscrutable region amongst the angular and tortuous eucalyptus trees. Their frenzy was that of people ejected from the known world and making a rough, brutal bed in the unknown one.
Surgeon Bowes Smyth was an evangelical Christian, and so easier to render aghast than some, such as the less outraged Watkin Tench, who wrote (inaccurately), “While they were on board ship, the two sexes had been kept most rigorously apart; but, when landed, their separation became impracticable and would have been, perhaps, wrong. Licentiousness was the unavoidable consequence and their old habits of depravity were beginning to recur. What was to be attempted? To prevent their inter-course was impossible, and to palliate its evils only remained. Marriage was recommended.” That was the voice of the Enlightenment, not of the fervent. Social good might arise from a regulated mingling of the sexes, and licentiousness was to be abhorred not so much as an abomination in God's eyes but as a threat to reason and good order.
But before the Reverend Johnson was to perform the first marriages, civil governance had to be officially commenced. The orgy prevailed until the dripping, thundery small hours of 7 February, but by noon that same day civic formalities took hold. All the marine officers, their metal gorgets glistening at their throats, took post before their companies, which marched off the rough-hewn parade ground to adjoining ground especially cleared for the occasion, “whereon the convicts were assembled to hear His Majesty's commission read.”
Bowes Smyth and Collins describe a scene that seems ridiculous if abstracted from its symbols and rituals, and the inherent beliefs of its more significant participants. Phillip, having dressed in his full uniform of post-captain and wearing his British and Portuguese awards on his breast, emerged from his palazzo of canvas and proceeded to the ceremonial ground at the head of the cove. Upon arrival, he took off his hat and “complimented” the marine officers, and the marines lowered their colours and paid him respect as governor. The marines then formed a circle around the convicts, who were ordered to sit down like so many school children on the ground. A camp table had been set up with two red leather cases laid on it; they contained the commissions and letters-patent, ready to be unsealed and opened in the sight of everyone present and read by Judge-Advocate Captain Collins.
As Phillip stood by, Captain Collins read aloud the documents signed by King George III and his Cabinet which empowered Phillip in New South Wales. Waves of august language rose and perched in the trees: George III, by the Grace of God King of Britain, France, and Ireland, “to our trusty and well-beloved Arthur Phillip, Esquire.” Never had a more exceptional claim of territory been uttered than in this commission now read amongst the eucalypts and cabbage tree palms, and heard without comprehension by the no doubt observant Cadigal and Wangal clans of the area. Arthur Phillip was to be Captain-General and Governor-in- Chief over New South Wales, which was an area declared to run from the northern extremity of the coast, Cape York, to the southern extremity of South Cape—from 10 degrees South to 43 degrees South, that is, or the southern hemisphere equivalent of from the Tagus River in Portugal to Trondheim in Norway. The claim also extended to all the country inland westward as far as 135 degrees East. What ever was out there, 1,500 miles west of Sydney Cove, a greater distance than London to Moscow, in this document now being read aloud by a captain of marines the Crown claimed it. A massive stretch of earth had been mysteriously transformed. It had become, for the first time, estate and realm.
This claim of George III, released into the sky and certified by Phillip's presence, did not run all the way to what would prove to be the west coast of Australia. Phillip, listening to Captain Collins that humid and hung-over day, with the sun already sucking up the water of the glittering harbour to make the coming evening's thunderstorm, knew well enough that the extent of the claim, the fact that it did not go further than 135 degrees East, made room for the claims of other nations—especially of the Dutch, who had made many landings in what is now called Western Australia. Even though they despised it as a desert coast and had not yet claimed it, their sensitivities had to be respected. And the Portuguese had a long-standing claim on Timor, with which George III and his ministers saw no reason to quarrel, particularly given England's friendly relationship with Portugal. Just the same, it was a massive claim, close to three-fifths of what would later prove a continent of 3 million square miles, and it was uttered in front of such humble and debased and ragtag company, and amidst canvas, wattle-and-daub, and eucalypts.
The name “Australia,” meaning “Southland,” was not mentioned. In 1569 and 1570, respectively, Mercator and Ortellius used the terms Continens Australis and Australia Continens. Discovering Vanuatu in 1606, Pedro Fernandes de Quirós had posited a southern continent named Australia deEspíritu Santo or Australia Incognita. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the terms Australia and Australis appeared on maps as an ill-defined given. Cook, finding this eastern coast in 1770, thought of it as part of New Holland but did not know if it was a continent or an archi-pelago stretching away to the west. So he named this east coast New Wales and New South Wales. As a result, in Phillip's commission, the name New South Wales was used, not Australia, which would not then have had international meaning. But the terms New Holland, Botany Bay, and New South Wales soon became interchangeable in the mind of the British public.
Arthur Phillip was, by the commissions and letters-patent, to have the power to appoint officials and administer oaths—he would administer one to Collins before that gentleman began his work as judge-advocate. Phillip had the power to pardon and reprieve, punish offenders, and make land grants to civilians. He was empowered also to create a criminal court, a civil court, an admiralty court, and so on.
The commission read, the marines fired three volleys to seal this extraordinary advent of authority. The light did not change and the air held its humidity, and somewhere in the huge harbour, native women fished from the insecure platforms of their bark canoes. The vast, mute, electric blue sky hung sceptically over the giant claims of the British.
The volleys fired off, Phillip now spoke to his charges—Bowes Smyth used the word “harangued.” He was probably not in the mood for eloquence, and suffered from a certain post-landing depression and the onset of the gritty task. So he offered them no golden promise. By now, he knew that many among them were incorrigible and he said that he was persuaded that nothing but severity would have any effect on them. If they attempted to get into women's tents at night, the soldiers had orders to fire upon them. (This would prove an unenforceable threat.) He had observed that they had been very idle—not more than 200 out of 600 of them were at work. Phillip told his people that labour in Sydney Cove would not be as severe as that of a husbandman in England who had a wife and family to provide for. They would never be worked beyond their abilities, but every individual should contribute his share “to render him-self and community at large happy and comfortable as soon as the nature of the settlement will admit of.” In England, stealing poultry was not punished with death, he said, but here that sort of loss could not be supplied and it was of extreme consequence to the settlement that chickens and other livestock be preserved for breeding. Stealing the most trifling item of stock or provisions therefore would be punished with death. This severity, he said, was contrary to his humanity and feelings for his fellow creatures, but justice demanded such rigid execution of the laws.
This extraordinary executive decision would ultimately scythe down a number of those felons sitting listening to him. On landing, Phillip had implemented his plan to provide full rations from the two years of supplies the ships had brought. Convicts were to receive an equal share to men and officers—7 pounds of salt beef or 4 of pork, 3 pints of dried peas, 7 pounds of flour, 6 ounces of butter, half a pound of rice or, if it were not available, an extra pound of flour weekly. Females, whether marines' or parsons' wives or fallen creatures, received two-thirds of that ration. Phillip had no doubt at all—neither did any officer express an opposite view—that those rations needed to be protected from bullies and thieves by the sanction of death.
But some officials disapproved of the democracy of rations. Talkative Major Robbie Ross thought it appalling to give a lazy or malingering convict the same ration as an industrious one, or as one of His Majesty's marines, or, for that matter, as the governor himself. He complained that the convicts were unduly “sustained by the humanity (I might have said folly)” of the government. Personal industriousness should be encouraged by imposed hunger, and industry should also be rewarded.
Phillip knew that chaos and a wild unofficial market in food would result from an inequity in the rations. He was also aware from long naval experience of inspecting opened barrels of rations that the contents were never as copious in reality as they were on paper. The weight of beef and pork was enhanced in many cases by bone and fluid, and the meat, so mummified that sailors and convicts called it “mahogany,” shrank to a much lower weight when cooked. The butter was inevitably rancid and the weight of flour and rice included plentiful weevils. Phillip also knew that rations would soon need to be reduced unless the hinterland and the harbour proved unexpectedly to be bounteous sources of food. Indeed, the first reduction of twelve pounds per every hundred pounds of beef, and eight pounds in every hundred pounds of pork, would be ordered within seven weeks.
On top of that, convicts and marines, officials, and perhaps even Arthur Phillip were aware that the aura of Sydney Cove was the aura of a place forgotten by God and government. Phillip could look at the dun forests and imagine realistically that a minor ineptitude on the part of either Lord Sydney or Evan Nepean, or some disaster overtaking a storeship at sea, could lead to a scene of famine, of white cadavers amongst the eucalypts, and even of that most feared and unclean phenomenon, cannibalism.
After his plain speech to the convicts, the governor retired to a cold collation in a large tent to which the general officers of the colony only were invited, and, said affronted Bowes Smyth, “not the least attention whatever was paid to any other person who came out from England.” For example, the masters of the different ships had attended the reading of the commission, but now they were left to return to their ships “with no more accommodation for them than for the convicts themselves.” The military clique had established itself in Sydney Cove.
IT WAS ASSUMED THAT for further follies committed in Sydney Cove, some convicts would soon need to appear before the Court of Criminal Judicature, headed by Judge-Advocate David Collins. The court consisted of whatever panel of six officers or officials—the Reverend Johnson was eligible—David Collins could assemble. It had the power to impose the death penalty by a majority of five votes..
As much as Ralph Clark expected to be bringing down judgment on the heads of the convicts, he was in fact first summoned to sit in a judicial capacity in a tent near the military lines to hear relatively minor charges against some marines. To begin with, a misdemeanour endemic to soldiery the world over: a Private Green had been drunk on guard and though sentenced to 100 lashes by the court was put on probation.
The second case before the court-martial was a more significant and peculiarly Sydney Cove one. Private Bramwell had struck the convict woman Elizabeth Needham, “an infamous hussy,” according to Lieutenant Clark. She had once tried to shoplift stockings from a West End business, and had already been married when sent to Newgate. Aboard Penrhyn, she had become Private Bramwell's lover for part of her time at sea, but when Bramwell now asked her to accompany him into the woods behind the camp, she would not go. Since the male convicts had been landed she had met with a man and intended to “marry” him..
The hectic partner-swapping amongst some women appalled Lieutenant Clark. “Good God, what a scene of whoredom is going on there in the women's camp—no sooner has one man gone in with a woman than another goes in with her. I hope the Almighty will keep me free from them as he has hitherto done, but I need not be afraid as I promised you, my tender Betsy, I will keep my word with you.”.
Bramwell was sentenced to 200 lashes for assaulting Needham. Thus, Green being let off by Phillip, a marine disappointed in lust was the first in Sydney Cove to feel the lash on his back. He received 100 strokes on the parade ground at the steel triangle to which he was strapped, and after that was sent to hospital to recover. The marines were conscious that this was a case of a free man being punished for an offence against a convict. There was murmuring later, but it was all according to Sydney's and Phillip's plan that convict and free be equal before the common law and authority.