Chapter Nine


THE SUNDAY BEFORE THE WOMEN were landed, the Reverend Johnson had conducted a service ashore, “on the grass,” for the first time in all this immensity. The sermon that first Sunday, when only a proportion of marines and male convicts had been landed, had been based on Psalm 116, verse 12: “What shall I render unto the Lord for all the benefits toward me?” It was a question for which some of the male convicts might have had whimsical answers.

On the next Sunday, however, everyone but the sailors was ashore (and indeed, half of them were too) and the Reverend Johnson held service again gamely on the east side of the cove “under a great tree,” probably what would become known as a Moreton Bay fig tree.

New South Wales's chaplain, Johnson was the son of a wealthy Yorkshire farmer. He would become a farmer here, since he had worked at that trade throughout his twenties, and at teaching as well, until he entered Cambridge in 1780. He had been ordained an Anglican priest in 1786.

He was a member of the Eclectic Society, a movement of evangelical priests and laymen who were influenced by Wesley, but not to the extent that they abandoned the Established Church and became Methodists. Young men had to be “subscribing Anglicans,” that is, to vow themselves to the Anglican Church as the Church underlying the Crown, before they could graduate from English universities. In his youth, however, Johnson had tended towards the Methodist view of the Established Anglican Church as a corrupted entity. Phillip himself was not a great lover of the Church except as an arm of government, and convicts, when they thought of the Church at all, saw it similarly as an engine of state run for profit.

Before coming to New South Wales, Johnson had gone down to one of the Woolwich hulks run by Duncan Campbell. “He was of delicate health, of sensitive nature, of retiring habit,” and found the hulks worse than his imaginings of hell. The social program of the Eclectic Society included a desire to reform prisons and end slavery, but if there had been any reforming zeal about prisons in Johnson when he was first appointed, meeting the profane convicts made him tend to the belief that the degradation to which they were subjected was their own doing.

When he first preached from a shipboard quarterdeck in Portsmouth, waiting for the fleet to sail, to convicts who had been brought up from below, he tried to interest them in the major theological debates of the day, questions of the nature of free will and grace which lay at the centre of his own consciousness but which were arcane to pickpockets. An unsympathetic and agnostic Phillip requested him to begin with and to stick with practical moral subjects. Phillip was not interested in his theology, but only in Johnson's capacity as a social regulator.

When Johnson and his wife came aboard the store ship Golden Grove they brought with them a considerable library, generally rather mocked by Australian historians, of 100 Bibles, 100 prayer books, 400 New Testaments, 500 psalters, 200 Church Catechisms, 100 copies of Necessity forReading the Scriptures, 200 copies of the Sermon on the Mount, 25 plain Exhortations to Prisoners, 12 copies of Instructions for the Indians, 50 copies of Caution to Swearers, 100 copies of Exhortations to Chastity, 600 copies of a book named Administrations, and, indicating that he might have already given up on the present generation and be planning to evangelise their children, 200 copies each of The Child's First Book and The Child's Second Book. Johnson intended to run this collection as a circulating library amongst the convicts, who were permitted to take six of them at a time. The uses to which they put the pages of these books were often profane.

So, in the tale of the First Fleet, Johnson has always held the place of irrelevant and unworldly pietist. But he was respected as a spiritual adviser by Lieutenant Dawes and others. On the journey out, he had moved from one ship to another, preaching and baptising children, and he and Mary occupied their little cabin without complaint, though suffering from cruel dysentery and the bleeding from the anus caused by abrasive salt rations.

Now, after his second service, on 10 February, read according to the rite of the Anglican Church, children were christened, fruits of the penal experiment and the eight-month voyage. The daughter of Private Bacon and his wife, Jane, was christened with the infants of bondage: John Matthew, son of Catherine Prior, a West Country highway robber; and Joseph Downey, child of the adolescent felon Sarah Bellamy. Both latter children were sickly from the voyage and suffering in the high summer heat, which might explain their mothers' touching and orthodox desire to see them baptised. John Matthew would indeed die the next month, but Joseph Downey would vanish first, on 29 February, desolating young Sarah.

After the baptisms, five convict couples were edifyingly married by the Reverend Johnson. Ralph Clark was sure some of them already had husbands or wives in England. Had Phillip known of the pre-existing marriages, he would probably not have stood in the way of these new alliances. For here the affianced were in a new earth under a new heaven. Their British marriages had been annulled by distance and were of no help in moderating their behaviour here.

The first couple to appear before Johnson that day were a literate Lancashire man named William Parr, who had cheated a shopkeeper, and his bride, Mary McCormick. Parr must have had a local fame in Liverpool, since court records described him as “the noted swindler.” His wife was Liverpool Irish, tried in 1784 for receiving stolen goods.

David Collins thought that some of those who married were influenced by the idea that married people would be treated to various little comforts and privileges that were otherwise denied, “and some, on not finding those expectations realised, repented, wished and actually applied to be restored to their former situations.” We do not know if William Parr and Mary McCormick married for such hopeful reasons. In any case, they made a solid pair, and William would later be entrusted with the issue of spirits from the stores.

Notable amongst the other marrying couples was the young Norwich Castle pair whose destiny had so affected the English public: Henry Kable and Susannah Holmes. This union, between two marginal people in a place forgotten by God, would prove abiding, and end only with Susannah's death as a matriarch nearly forty years later. It was the sort of alliance both Johnson and Phillip required—marriage as a moral rudder. It is in a sense a pity they were not the first order of business that day, for they would have brought great honour to the role of Antipodean Adam and Eve.

The last couple to bespeak Parson Johnson that day were as exceptional as the Kables. They already had a child between them. Or at least Mary Braund or Broad, a handsome Cornish girl in her early twenties, had given birth to a daughter whom she named Charlotte, the same name as the transport she and her new husband, Will Bryant, travelled on, and it was presumed Charlotte was Will's child. Mary had been guilty, along with two other girls, of ambushing a Plymouth spinster and robbing her of a silk bonnet and goods to the value of 11 pounds 11 shillings. As they stood before the Exeter assizes on 20 March 1786, all three girls were sentenced to hang. Their sentences were reduced to seven years transportation.

On the Dunkirk hulk, Mary had met Will Bryant, a Cornish fisherman about twenty-seven years of age, convicted exactly two years earlier than Mary at the Launceston assizes for “resisting the revenue officers who attempted to seize some smuggled property he had.” He was sentenced to seven years transportation as well, so that he had served over four years in the Dunkirk at the time he was put aboard the convict transport Charlotte. Smuggling, Will's crime, was considered almost respectable, particularly in Cornwall. Anyone who had anything to do with the sea was involved in illegal import. Fishermen downloaded tax-free wine, brandy, and tea from French ships, or from British ones nearing port whose captains wanted to avoid paying tax, and brought the goods ashore, where the distribution networks ran deep inland. In eastern counties like Sussex, smuggling wool out of England without paying tax on it was a common seafaring activity, and bitterness over the excise men, the customs police, would come close to causing civil rebellion. As one eighteenth-century observer wrote, there arose “an organised resistance to the government, in which towns were besieged, battles fought, customs houses burned down, and the greatest atrocities committed.” It was not considered a grave sin to kill “these cruel narks” who wanted to impose their excise on the supply of goods from France.

The Bryant who married on 10 February in Sydney Cove was the sort of man in whom a native independence and a dark sense of having been used hard were at work. They created in him a determination to return to the known world, and he was very frank, even with Mary, that he did not see a New South Wales marriage as binding should he escape. Yet, uttering her vows before Johnson on the strange southern shore, Mary would come to pay such a phenomenal price of loyalty to her spouse as would make the normal respectable marriage of better folk in other places look pallid indeed.

By the time he took his marriage vows, Will had been appointed the colony's fisherman with special privileges of residency on the east side of the cove, and the management of other convicts assigned to the government fishing boats. Of necessity, Phillip blessed him for his skills.

THERE WAS A RULE by mid-February that sailors were not to be admitted to the women's camp. The male convicts, however, were happy as soon as the women were landed to see it enforced against those sailors who had lorded over them at sea. The day after the weddings, a carpenter and a boy belonging to the Prince of Wales were caught in the women's tents. They were drummed out with a marine fifer and drummer playing the “Rogue's March” and the boy dressed in petticoats. Similarly, it was proving difficult to keep the male convicts out. Surgeon Bowes Smyth wrote, “The anarchy and confusion which prevails throughout the camp and the audacity of the convicts, both men and women, is arrived to such a pitch as is not to be equal, I believe, by any set of villains in any other spot upon the globe.”

Yet there was purer, more admirable and singular love. A sailor named John Fisher, from the Lady Penrhyn, gave way to his longing to see his convict woman, Catherine Hart, and their infant son, John. Catherine Hart had been nineteen when tried at the Old Bailey in 1784 for some undistinguished act of theft. The prosecutor addressed the judge in these terms about the goods she had stolen: “My Lord, I value them at thirty shillings in order to save her life, because the wretch's life is no value to me.” The child, John, had been one of the children baptised at the Cape of Good Hope, and now his father, the seaman Fisher, swam ashore a number of nights to see his mother and him. He would sicken and die at Sydney Cove on 25 March 1788 of chest infection and dysentery, Surgeon Bowes Smyth attributing his death to his “imprudence” in swimming ashore naked. “He would lie about with her in the woods all night in the dews and return on board again a little before daylight, thereby he caught a most violent cold and made his disorder infinitely more putrid than it would otherwise have been.”

The women of Sydney Cove would often be as practical about marriage as Phillip was. For after John Fisher died, Catherine became the lover of Lieutenant Robert Kellow, who would leave her with two of his children when he left the colony.

AT JUDGE-ADVOCATE DAVID COLLINS'S judicial marquee, on a warm hour in mid-afternoon, the first criminal court of three naval officers and three military officers, dressed in their uniforms and carrying side-arms, assembled on the day after the weddings to address the emergence of criminal unruliness in New South Wales. Harry Brewer in his raggedy naval jacket was put to work to bring along the first three accused of crimes in Sydney Cove. They were not very remarkable crimes. An angry young West Country thief, Sam Barsby, had been working at making barrel staves on the east side of the stream and had broken his adze. Unable to find a new adze at the store tent, and fired by rum sailors had given him in return for pointing out the women's camp to them, he was ordered back to work by Drum-Major Benjamin Cook. Barsby struck the drum-major with the broken adze and a melee began which ended with the soldiers guarding Phillip's canvas Government House taking Barsby prisoner. During the evening of his arrest, Barsby raged in his bonds and was ultimately gagged. He was found guilty and sentenced to 150 lashes, harsh enough but less than Private Bramwell got for assaulting a convict woman.

By the time of this first criminal trial, Albion/Sydney had established itself as the southern hemisphere's London, since the same dodges, lurks, and ruses characterised both places. Similar too was the justice system, which proceeded functionally to administer the punishment to Barsby as soon as the court had finished sitting. As with Bramwell, he was tied to an iron triangular frame and the lashes counted out.

The former revolutionary soldier Jacob Nagle observed that the cato' nine-tails was feared until its first use, after which a deterioration could be observed in the sailor's or convict's character. For those who had not been flogged with a cat—its multiple knotted ends each encasing a lump of lead—flogging was unimaginable; in their profoundest soul, they hoped it would not happen to them. For men who did not consider themselves professional criminals—Will Bryant, the smuggler, for example—the triangle was an entry to a new, angry world in which they would have less power over their own souls and over the furies of their temperament, and thus over the progress of their imprisonment.

But those to whom it was happening a second or third time often “endured it in a solemn silence, no cry, no groan, no prayer for mercy.” Only an occasional threat came from the prisoner: “But damn my eyes if I don't have satisfaction one way or another, if I get hanged for it.”

The second person to be tried that afternoon was Thomas Hill, who had forcibly taken a quantity of bread from a weaker convict. It must have been a mere morsel for him to have been saved the gallows, but the crime suggests that for some in Sydney Cove hunger was already biting, not least because it was almost impossible for Phillip to prevent the convicts trading or gambling their rations, and being left voracious for days. Hill was sentenced to be kept in irons for one week, fed on bread and water, on the little sandstone knob of an island off the eastern end of Sydney Cove. A breeches-maker from Dorset who had as his founding criminal offence stolen a silver watch, Hill became the first man to occupy that rock which would acquire the name Pinchgut.

To round out the early cycle of punishments, and to show that New South Wales was of full British weight, on 14 February two women received twenty-five lashes each “at the cart's tail”—tethered to a cart as it moved around the camp—for theft. Private Easty mentioned an event so remarkable to modern sensibilities quite offhandedly in his journal.

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