The following address was recently given at Russ Martin Park, Moruya, on the south coast of New South Wales, by Captain Ward Hack, AM, RAN, Rtd. While it was mainly aimed at a younger local audience it is worthy of our attention.
Welcome to Moruya’s 2019 Australia Day ceremony. I hope you have enjoyed yourselves so far. I would like to thank the ladies and gentlemen of the Lions and Rotary clubs for the effort they have put in this morning. My name is Ward Hack and I am president of the Rotary Club of Moruya. I have lived near here for the past 20 years after I completed 32 years’ service with the Royal Australian Navy.
Two hundred and thirty-one years ago today eleven ships of the British Royal Navy arrived in Sydney Cove. This was a traumatic event for the native Bidjigal clan of the Eora people. Let us try to imagine we are the local Yuin people when, beside us, up this river comes a fleet of monstrous vessels. The largest was the transport Alexander. She was 450 tons and 114 feet or 35 metres long. The smallest was the store ship Supply, of 168 tons and 70 feet or 21 metres long – about the length of a cricket pitch. Small today but they are huge in comparison to our bark canoes and each is carrying a tribe of very weird looking people. They have weapons we have never seen before. We are very afraid of them and we go bush. It takes months for us to trust them enough to even go near them. They are totally alien to us. We want them to go away. Just like the Eora near Sydney Cove.
What I want to talk to you about today are two other aspects of this event. I don’t think we understand just how traumatic this expedition was for another group of people – the convicts and their keepers. And I don’t think we give credit to what was a really remarkable effort by the Royal Navy.
It was, and remains, one of the greatest sea voyages in history. Eleven ships carried over 1400 people and stores 24,000 km around the world to a scarcely known destination without losing a ship. Only 48 people died, a death rate of about 3%, considered very good in those days. Their only radar was a man with his Mark 1 eyeball at the top of the foremast, exposed to all the weather the Southern Ocean could throw at them – and it did – no-one was ever really dry in a ship (no wonder old sailors suffered from rheumatism). They were sailing mostly uncharted waters. They stayed in convoy during terrible storms and arrived together on the other side of the world eight and a half months later. It was a tremendous feat of seamanship and navigation.
In charge was Commodore Arthur Phillip. The fleet was made up of two armed naval ships, six ships carrying the convicts and three store ships. They sailed from Portsmouth in England in May 1787 and crossed the Atlantic to Brazil. They then sailed south and east back across the Atlantic to Africa. In Cape Town, then a Dutch colony, they loaded food and animals. This was the last outpost of European settlement many would see for years, some for the rest of their lives. Robert Hughes, in his book The Fatal Shore, wrote:
Before them stretched the awesome, lonely void of the Indian and Southern Oceans, and beyond that, lay nothing they could imagine.
The fleet arrived with 18 months’ provisions and tons of stores to establish a colony. They had small numbers of turkeys, geese, ducks, chickens, dogs, horses, cows, sheep, goats, pigs and rabbits. They had tents, bricks, nails, blacksmiths and carpentry tools and whips and muskets. This expedition had been well planned by the Admiralty in London. Unfortunately, the follow up store ship was lost at sea and within 12 months the colony was starving – I will come back to this.
But let me now turn to the other players – the convicts and their overseers. To be English in those days was great if you were in the middle class or a Lord, but if you lived in a city slum or were a farm labourer, life was very hard. They had the biggest and most powerful navy in the world. At this time, they were establishing colonies for trade and to take their convicts and surplus population, and they took no notice of any local inhabitants who happened to be there already – there was room for everyone as far as they were concerned.
In the first fleet about 600 males, 200 females and 14 child convicts were assigned to Botany Bay, most for a sentence of seven years. The oldest convict was Dorothy Handland, 62. The youngest was an orphaned nine-year-old chimney sweep named John Hudson. They had both stolen clothing. This was to be no pleasure cruise. The convicts were kept below decks in cramped and foul holds. But here Phillip was better than those who followed him. He had consulted old sailing masters who had transported convicts to America before the Revolution. He ordered the ships to allow the prisoners on deck during the day and visited each transport to make sure that his orders were followed. They had bedbugs, lice, rats, cockroaches and fleas aplenty (so did the sailors and marines). The convicts only had one set of rough prison clothes so they seldom washed. The stench was overpowering. The female convicts’ clothes were so riddled with lice that they had to be burnt and they made replacements from old rice bags. Water had to be rationed and it was not clean. Three pints (about two litres) per person per day.
After arrival things were not much better for the convicts. They were guarded by Marines, the Navy’s soldiers. The Marines were hard men. The Royal Navy was a highly disciplined and powerful force. Sailors and marines were routinely flogged for small offences to enforce this discipline. They saw no problem in extending this to the convicts. One of the marine officers was Lieutenant George Johnston who was the adjutant to the governor, Commodore Phillip. You will hear more about him in a minute. The marines worked our convicts very hard – every day except Sunday. If they committed any offence the punishment was swift and painful. Floggings with the cat were common, leg irons weighing 18 kilos were fitted if you gave trouble – if you would like to get a feel for leg irons, try walking with twobricks chained to each of your ankles. Some were sentenced to the treadmill, walking all day to turn a grinding wheel to crush grain – 40 minutes on then 20 off, all day, every day. They probably got Sunday off, but I am not sure. It became a matter of honour amongst the convicts not to scream with pain while being flogged. Think about that. Think hard about what that says about what they thought about authority.
The ferocity of British justice shocked the aborigines. In 1791 a convict who stole fishing tackle from Daringa, the wife of Colebee, was severely flogged in front of the clan. The reason for the punishmentwasexplainedtothem. Theaborigines expressed horror at the punishment and sympathy for the thief.
On top of this, the first couple of years did not go so well. The crops failed due to poor soil and lack of rain. Fish were scarce, and they were not good at hunting kangaroos, and then, the cattle wandered off into the bush. They were soon running out of the salt pork, salt beef, dried peas and flour they had brought. The governor, Commodore Phillip, is one of the men I really admire. Governor Phillip had to reduce the convict’s rations but he also imposed the same limits on his officers and marines and himself. He also tried hard to establish friendly relations with the Eora.
Then scurvy starts to appear, something most feared by sailors in those days. It is a lack of Vitamin C which we get from fruit and vegetables. You know you are getting scurvy when open wounds refuse to heal, your gums begin to bleed and your teeth become loose. Your skin has dark purple blotches and you don’t feel much like working but you get flogged if you don’t. Phillip is forced to cut rations again and women convicts get two-thirds of men’s rations. Towards the end of 1788 the convict Charley Wilson dies of starvation. In March 1789, Phillip hangs six marines for stealing food from the public stores.
But eventually stores arrive and the colony slowly gets established on a sound footing. In the following 80 years, convicts arrived in their thousands, 162,000 convicts were transported to Australia, some under appalling conditions. The second fleet (1790) brings 1,000 convicts; of these 260 died on the voyage, mostly of scurvy, dysentery and fever. Another 140 were so sick they died within six months of arrival, a 40% fatality rate compared with Phillip’s 3%. In 1797 Britanniaarrived with a cargo of Irish convicts. Her master Thomas Dennot routinely ordered floggings of 300, 400 and even 800 lashes during the voyage. In 1799, the transport Hillsboroughwith 300 convicts lost 95 to typhoid.
Despite all this, many convicts completed their sentences and settled on the land. Many of the women convicts married marines who also became farmers. Thousands more became our forebears. There will be people here today whose ancestors were those people. I don’t think it is impossible that these tough (remember the ‘don’t scream’ ethos) people had a lot to do with the way the Australian character has developed. We accept authority grudgingly. We are not overawed by it. Our servicemen respect their officers if they are competent and considerate, not because of the rank they wear. I think our convict genes may have something to do with this. Prove me wrong!
In conclusion, while the first thirty years of white settlement of New South Wales were traumatic for the original inhabitants, it was also very much the case for the convicts and their guards. But we sometimes forget, it was the navy which organised and eventually succeeded in making the colony work. We owe the Royal Navy a lot. So please remember Commodore Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales. The next three governors were also navy officers. The last was Captain William Bligh of Bounty fame. The mutiny which removed Bligh in 1808 involved the aforementioned George Johnston. Now a major, he led the troops who arrested Governor Bligh in Government House, Sydney. And to connect the dots, the executive officer of my first ship, HMASVampire was Commander David Martin. In 1989, as Rear Admiral Sir David Martin he was appointed the 34th governor of NSW, 201 years after Arthur Phillip. Here is the bit that intrigues me. David Martin was a direct descendent of the same Lieutenant George Johnson of the Marines who arrived in Sydney on this day 231 years ago. Johnston married a convict, Esther Abrahams. After he was court-martialled for the Governor Bligh incident he became a farmer at Annandale.
I hope I have given you something to think about on this Australia Day. Thank you for listening.