Admiral Phillip/Chapter 10

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Famine was now upon the land. Collins and Tench both tell in simple but moving words the pitiful story of that time, the darkest hour in the colony's young life. Tench writes:—

'On the 5th of April, news was brought that the flag on the South Head was hoisted. Less emotion was created by the news than might be expected. Everyone coldly said to his neighbour, "The Sirius and Supply are returned from Norfolk Island."'

To satisfy himself that the news was correct, he went to the Observatory and looked through the large astronomical telescope at the flag. He saw it plainly enough, but with sinking heart was at once convinced that the ship was not from England, for he could see the solitary figure of the signalman strolling to and fro, unmoved by what he saw. 'I well knew how different an effect the sight of strange ships would produce.' Phillip, burning with anxiety, was ready to go down the harbour, and Tench accompanied him. Half-way down the harbour, just as they turned a point, they saw a boat which they knew belonged to the Supply rowing towards them. As the boats neared each other. Tench saw Captain Ball (of the Supply) make a motion with his hand which indicated that he brought a tale of disaster. Turning to the Governor, Tench begged him to prepare himself for bad news. 'A few minutes changed doubt into certainty; and to our unspeakable consternation we learned that the Sirius had been wrecked on Norfolk Island on the 19th of February. Happily, however. Captain Hunter and every other person belonging to her were saved. Dismay was painted on every countenance when the tidings were proclaimed in Sydney. The most distracting apprehensions were entertained, and all hopes were now concentred in the little Supply.

'When the age of our provisions is recollected, the inadequacy of our food will more strikingly appear. The pork and rice were brought with us from England. The pork had been salted between three and four years, and every grain of rice was a moving body, from the inhabitants lodged within it! We soon left off boiling the pork, as it had become so old and dry that it sunk one-half in its dimensions when dressed. Our usual method of cooking it was to cut off the daily morsel and toast it on a fork before the fire, catching the drops which fell on a slice of bread or in a saucer of rice. Our flour was the remnant of what was brought from the Cape by the Sirius, and was good. Instead of baking it, the soldiers and convicts used to boil it up with greens.'

Can anyone nowadays imagine the hideous isolation of the place? Railways, telegraphs, steamships have made such a complete cutting off from the world, in these times, a matter of impossibility. Upon Phillip alone rested the duty of finding food and caring for a thousand persons, nine hundred of whom, from ignorance and viciousness, would have died of starvation sooner than have done a hand's turn to help themselves.

Maxwell, one of the lieutenants of the Sirius, had gone melancholy mad, was discharged from the ship, and was at this time wandering about the settlement. Says Collins:—

'Mr Maxwell, whose disorder at times admitted of his going out alone, was fortunately brought up from the lower part of the harbour, where he had passed nearly two days, without sustenance, in rowing from one side to the other in a small boat by himself. He was noticed by a sergeant who had been fishing, and who observed him rowing under the dangerous rocks of the Middle Head, where he must soon have been dashed to pieces, but for his fortunate interposition. After this escape he was more narrowly watched. While occupied in listening to the tale of his distress, the Supply returned from Norfolk Island with an account that was of itself almost sufficient to have deranged the strongest intellect among us. A load of accumulated evils seemed bursting at once upon our heads. The ships that we expected with supplies were still to be anxiously looked for; and the Sirius, which was to have gone in quest of relief to our distresses, was lost upon the reef at Norfolk Island on the 19th of last month. This was a blow which, as it was expected, fell with increased weight, and on everyone the whole weight seemed to have fallen.

'This untoward accident happened in the following manner: Captain Hunter was extremely fortunate in having a short passage hence to Norfolk Island, arriving there in seven days after he sailed. The soldiers and a considerable part of the convicts were immediately landed in Cascade Bay, which happened at the time to be the leeward side of the island. Bad weather immediately ensued, and continuing for several days, the provisions could not be landed, so high was the surf occasioned by it. This delay, together with a knowledge that the provisions on the island were not adequate to the additional numbers that were now to be victualled, caused him' (Hunter) 'to be particularly anxious to get the provisions on shore. The bad weather had separated the Sirius from the Supply; but meeting with a favourable slant of wind on the 19th, Captain Hunter gained the island from which he had been driven, and stood for Sydney Bay, at the south end of it, where he found the Supply; and it being signified by signal from the shore (where they could form the best judgment) that the landing might be effected by any boat, he brought-to in the windward part of the bay, with the ship's head off shore, got out the boats, and loaded them with provisions.' He then describes how the ship began to drift towards the rocks, and how an endeavour was made to put her about, when she missed stays, and striking with violence on the reef, very soon bilged, and was irrecoverably lost. 'Her officers and people were all saved, having been dragged on shore through the surf on a grating. This day, which untoward circumstances have rendered so gloomy to us, was remarkably fine, and at the unfortunate moment of this calamity there was very little wind. On the next or second day after, permission was given to two convicts (one of whom, James Brannegan, was an overseer) to get off to the ship, and endeavour to bring on shore what live hogs they might be able to save; but with all that lamentable want of resolution and consideration which is characteristic of the lower order of people when temptations are placed before them, they both got intoxicated with the liquor which had escaped the plunder of the seamen, and set the ship on fire in two places. A light on board the ship being observed from the shore, several shot were fired at it, but the wretches would neither put it out or come on shore; when a young man of the name of Ascott, a convict, with great intrepidity went off through the surf, extinguished the fire and forced them out of the ship.'

For his good service it is satisfactory to know that Ascott was not forgotten by Phillip, who wrote to England and procured his pardon.

The disaster to the Sirius again served to show Phillip's resourcefulness. He assembled his civil and military officers without delay, and the desperate situation of the colony was thoroughly considered. It was decided to reduce still further a ration that was already too low for proper human subsistence. To fish for a living, instead of being a mere expression, became a literal fact, for all private boats were to be surrendered for the general benefit.

The services of the three convicts to whom the duty had been assigned of shooting kangaroos for individuals were now employed for the benefit of the community, but although considered good marksmen, they only succeeded in killing three kangaroos in as many weeks. A fishery, under the control of one of the midshipmen of the wrecked Sirius, was established at Botany Bay, but it did not answer, and was soon abandoned. At the present day Botany Bay is one of the main sources of the fish supply of the city of Sydney, but in Phillip's day—doubtless owing to the want of proper gear—the quantity of fish taken was very inconsiderable, and the labour of transporting it by land from thence was greater than the advantage which was expected to be derived from it.

The boats were therefore removed to Sydney, where they were employed with better success, but the straits of the settlement may be imagined when it is recorded that an officer had to go in every boat, night and day, to prevent the fish caught being devoured by the hungry fishermen. Once four hundred-weight of fish were caught, but generally the united take of the boats was no more than sufficient to provide the men employed with one pound of fish per man, which was allowed them in addition to their scanty ration. The small, privately owned boats were therefore returned to their owners, and the fishing was conducted in the larger boats belonging to the settlement, under the direction of some seamen belonging to the Sirius.

Absolute starvation now stared the community in the face. The proposed voyage of the Sirius to China for provisions was at an end, and the long looked for succour from England, though hourly expected, had not arrived. The necessity of procuring relief became every day more pressing. The Governor, therefore, determined to send the Supply to Batavia. Ball, the energetic commander of this small vessel, was directed to buy a supply of eight months' provisions for himself, and from the Dutch authorities to hire a vessel and purchase flour, beef, pork and rice, together with some necessaries for the hospital. The expectation of this relief was indeed distant, but yet it was more to be depended upon than that which might be coming from England. A given time was fixed for the return of the Supply; but it was impossible to say when a vessel might arrive from Europe. Whatever might be the distress for provisions, it would be some alleviation to look on to a certain fixed date when it might be expected to be removed. Lieutenant Ball's passage lay through the region of fine weather, and the hopes of everyone were fixed upon the little vessel which was to convey him. The Supply sailed from Sydney on the 17th of April; on board was Lieutenant King, the late commandant of Norfolk Island, charged with Phillip's despatches for the Secretary of State. The emotions of the settlers, free and bond, as they saw the small craft, the last link that bound them to the world beyond, disappear from their view, may be readily imagined.

Collins narrates that 'the Governor, from a motive that did him immortal honour in this season of general distress,' gave up three hundredweight of flour which was his private property, 'declaring that he wished not to see anything more at his table than the ration which was received in common from the public store, without any distinction of persons; and to this resolution he resolutely adhered, wishing that if a convict complained, he might see that want was not unfelt even at Government House.'

The ration at 'Government House' and the military and convict quarters was then, Collins tells us:—

'To each man for 7 days, or to 7 people for one day: flour, 2½ pounds; rice, 2 pounds; pork, 2 pounds.'

The pease were all expended. Was this a ration for a labouring man? The two pounds of pork, when boiled, from the length of time it had been in the store, shrunk away to nothing; and when divided among seven people for their day's sustenance, barely afforded three or four morsels each.

'The inevitable consequences of this scarcity of provisions ensued. Labour stood nearly suspended for want of energy to proceed; and the countenances of the people plainly bespoke the hardships they underwent. The convicts, however, were employed for the public in the afternoons; and such labour was obtained from them as their situation would allow.'

Meanwhile, what was happening at Norfolk Island? Ross's opportunity had come to show how he could govern. Possibly Phillip had sent him to the island to get rid of him. It was time for someone to carry to the Home Government urgent representations of the colony's great need, and Phillip had no officer so well fitted for this service as King. The lieutenant could be trusted to do his best to procure the much-needed supplies, and at the same time he was not the man to join forces with the 'opposition,' and recommend that the settlement should be abandoned on the ground that 'it would not support itself for a hundred years.'

The military, if not the administrative spirit, is shown in what followed the wreck of the Sirius, King retained command of the island until he left it in the Supply, and did so at the request of Ross, yet according to Hunter's Narrative, immediately after the ship was lost, 'Lieutenant-Governor Ross ordered the drums to assemble all the mariners and convicts; martial law was then proclaimed, and the people were told that if anyone killed any animal or fowl, or committed any robbery whatever, they would be instantly made a severe example of. The officers and marines were ordered to wear their field arms; guards were set over the barn and storehouses, and some other necessary regulations were ordered by the Lieutenant-Governor.'

It will be seen that Ross, who was unable to sanction his officers taking part in judicial proceedings at Port Jackson under Governor Phillip, speedily discovered a means by which a court could be formed at Norfolk Island under Lieutenant-Governor Ross. At Port Jackson the marines declared that a general court-martial could not assemble unless thirteen officers were present, and could not act then unless under a warrant from the Admiralty. At Norfolk Island, by proclaiming martial law, Ross conceived that his warrant for convening a court was sufficient for all purposes. The condition of affairs at the island when the Sirius went on shore is, of course, some justification for Ross's 'panic legislation,' although Mr Barton, the ablest Australian historian, has arrived at an opposite conclusion. Mr Barton quotes authorities to show that the only justification recognised by English law for proclaiming martial law 'is necessity, a necessity demonstrated by facts, not an imaginary one.' But Ross was in the position of a captain of a ship with his vessel in the breakers, who loads his revolvers in readiness to shoot the first man who attempts to rush the boats.

Ross's crew were of a kind very likely to rush the boats, and if he was a little hasty in getting his revolvers ready, small blame to him on that account: but it is a pity that when acting under Phillip he should have shown such extreme regard for red-tape formalities in the matter of the court-martial.

All this time the people on the mainland are left nearly starving, and so Norfolk Island must take care of itself as best it can for a while. No news of it can reach Port Jackson, for the Sirius is slowly breaking up on the reef, and the Supply has gone to Batavia for help.

'I early and late look with anxious eyes toward the sea, and at times, when the day was fast setting and the shadows of the evening stretched out, have been deceived with some fantastic little cloud, which, as it has condensed or expanded by such a light, for a little time has deceived impatient imagination into a momentary idea that 'twas a vessel altering her sails or position while steering in for the haven, when in a moment it has assumed a form so unlike what the mind was intent upon, or become so greatly' extended, as fully to certify me of its flimsy texture and fleeting existence. Surely our countrymen cannot have altogether forgotten us, or been vainly led from any silly, sanguine representations hence, to trust we could make it out tolerably well without their assistance.'

One can well imagine young Southwell, who thus wrote to his uncle, straining his eyes seaward from the cliffs at South Head, and looking in vain for a sail on the solitary Pacific—the ocean, for many hundreds of miles further than the range of his telescope, a desert of water.

Meanwhile, what must have been the feelings of the lonely man upon whom the welfare of the entire settlement depended—a burden no wise lessened by the whinings of his small-souled subordinates, each preoccupied with his own individual grievances? Tench tells how at length the clouds of misfortune began to separate, and on the evening of the 3rd of June, the joyful cry of 'the flag's up,' resounded in every direction.

'I was sitting in my hut, musing on our fate, when a confused clamour in the street drew my attention. I opened my door, and saw several women with children in their arms running to and fro with distracted looks, congratulating each other, and kissing their infants with the most passionate and extravagant marks of fondness. I needed no more; but instantly started out, and ran to a hill, where, by the assistance of a pocket-glass, my hopes were realized. My next door neighbour, a brother officer, was with me; but we could not speak; we wrung each other by the hand, with eyes and hearts overflowing. Finding that the Governor intended to go immediately in his boat down the harbour, I begged to be of his party. As we proceeded, the object of our hopes soon appeared—a large ship, with English colours flying, working in between the heads which form the entrance of the harbour. The tumultuous state of our minds represented her in danger, and we were in agony. Soon after, the Governor, having ascertained what she was, left us, and stepped into a fishing boat to return to Sydney.

'The weather was wet and tempestuous; but the body is delicate only when the soul is at ease. We pushed through wind and rain, the anxiety of our sensations every moment redoubling. At last we read the word "London" on her stern. "Pull away, my lads, she is from old England; a few strokes more, and we shall be aboard; hurrah for a belly-full, and news from our friends!" Such were our exhortations to the boat's crew. A few minutes completed our wishes, and we found ourselves on board the Lady Juliana transport, with two hundred and twenty-five of our countrywomen, whom crime or misfortune had condemned to exile. We learned that they had been almost eleven months on their passage, having left Plymouth, into which port they had put, in July 1789. We continued to ask a thousand questions in a breath. Stimulated by curiosity, they inquired in turn; but the right of being first answered, we thought, lay on our side. "Letters! letters!" was the cry. They were produced, and torn open in trembling agitation. News burst upon us like meridian splendor on a blind man. We were overwhelmed with it; public, private, general and particular. Nor was it until some days had elapsed that we were able to methodize it, or reduce it into form. We now heard for the first time of our Sovereign's illness, and his happy restoration to health. The French Revolution of 1789, with all the attendant circumstances of that wonderful and unexpected event, succeeded to amaze us. Now, too, the disaster which had befallen the Guardian' (wrecked on her way out), *and the liberal and enlarged plan on which she had been stored and fitted out by Government for our use, was promulged. It served also in some measure to account why we had not sooner heard from England.

'For had not the Guardian struck on an island of ice, she would probably have reached us three months before, and in this case have prevented the loss of the Sirius, although she' (the Guardian) 'had sailed from England three months after the Lady Juliana.'

The loss of this ship was a disaster great enough to merit a page of description here, but the name of her commander, of whom Nelson wrote as the 'gallant and good Captain Riou,' gives additional interest to the story of the wreck.

The Guardian was a forty-four gun ship, which had been selected for the service on account of her fast sailing qualities. Her guns were taken out, she was specially fitted, and had on board a great quantity of provisions and stores of all kinds for the settlement. She sailed from England in September 1789, and on the 23rd of December, after leaving the Cape of Good Hope, she struck some floating ice, receiving severe damage.

To prevent the vessel sinking, most of the live stock and other stores were thrown overboard. Riou, after doing what he could to save the ship, concluded that there was no chance of keeping her afloat, and so sent most of the people away in the boats, but himself with a few others remained on board, and after a wonderful and hazardous voyage lasting nine weeks, succeeded in getting back to the Cape.

After reaching Cape Town, although badly injured in the accident, Riou worked like a Trojan to get the ship repaired, but at last had to give it up. His great concern was for the people in the little colony, who were, as he fully understood, in sore need of the stores. Behind the Guardian the other vessels of the Second Fleet of transports were slowly arriving at the Cape, and Riou used every exertion to hasten on their departure, putting on board them what stores he had saved from the wreck.

In a despatch to the Admiralty sent by him on 20th May 1790, he writes:—

'By the Lady Juliana, transport, which sailed from this bay on the 30th of March, I sent seventy-five barrels of flour and one pipe of Teneriffe wine consigned to Governor Phillip. I had been so fortunate as to preserve the despatches which I had received from the hands of Vice-Admiral Roddam for Governor Phillip, and I delivered them to the care of Lieut. Thomas Edgar, superintendant of the Lady Juliana, In that ship I also sent the five surviving superintendants of convicts which were on board the Guardian.

'The Neptune, Surprize, and Scarborough arrived in False Bay the 14th of April, and in them I sent, under the care of Lt. John Shapcote, the agent, twenty convicts, which were all that remained alive of the twenty-five that were sent on board the Guardian at Spithead. I also put on board those ships four hundred tierces of beef and two hundred tierces of pork; and had not a misunderstanding existed between Lieutenant Shapcote and myself, it is my opinion I could have sent many articles which would not have taken up much stowage in the ships under his direction that would have been very acceptable to His Majesty's colony in New South Wales. But as that officer waited my orders for his proceedings, and afterwards persisted in his own resolution of sailing from False Bay on a certain day which he determinately fixed upon, I lost no time to endeavour to acquiesce in his measures, resolving that nothing should be wanting on my part to give all possible assistance to the colony, fearing that it might severely experience the effects of the accident that has befel His Majesty's ship under my command. The Neptune, Surprize, and Scarborough sailed from False Bay on the 29th of April.

'Permit me now, sir, to address you on a subject which I hope their Lordships will not consider to be unworthy their notice. It is to recommend as much as is in my power to their Lordships' favour and interest the case of the twenty convicts which my duty compelled me to send to Port Jackson. But the recollection of past sufferings reminds me of that time when I found it necessary to make use of every possible method to encourage the minds of the people under my command, and at such a time, considering how great the difference might be between a free man struggling for life, and him who perhaps might consider death as not much superior to a life of ignominy and disgrace, I publicly declared that not one of them, so far as depended on myself, should ever be convicts. And I may with undeniable truth say that had it not been for their assistance and support, the Guardian would never have arrived to where she is. Their conduct prior to the melancholy accident that happened on the 23rd of December last was always such as may be commended, and from their first entrance into the ship at Spithead, they ever assisted and did their duty in like manner as the crew. I have taken the liberty to recommend them to the notice of Governor Phillip; but I humbly hope, sir, their Lordships will consider the service done by these men as meriting their Lordships' favour and protection, and I make no doubt that should I have been so fortunate as to represent their cases in proper colours, that they will experience the benefit of their Lordships' interest.' The twenty convicts were pardoned upon condition that they remained in the colony until their sentences expired.

The arrival of the Lady Juliana was not an unmixed blessing. Collins says that when the women were landed many of them appeared to be loaded with the infirmities incident to old age, and to be 'very improper subjects for any of the purposes of an infant colony. … Instead of being capable of labour, they seemed to require attendance themselves, and were never likely to be any other than a burden to the settlement, which must sensibly feel the hardship of having to support by the labour of those who could toil, and who at the best were but few, a description of people utterly incapable of using any exertion towards their own maintenance.'

This ship's arrival was followed a fortnight later by that of the Justinian with a cargo of provisions, but fortunately no prisoners to help eat them, and on the day following full rations were ordered to be issued; the drum for labour was beat as usual at one o'clock, and hope ran high that the worst was over, and that no further hardships would have to be endured.

In order to relieve the community on Norfolk Island, whose situation, says Collins, 'everyone was fearful might call loudly for relief,' it was decided to send the Lady Juliana there as quickly as possible, and as she was in a bad state of repair, some carpenters from the shore were sent to sheath her bends, which were in a very bad state.

Then in quick succession there came into port the remaining vessels which, with the Guardian, made up the Second Fleet. These were the Surprize, the Scarborough and the Neptune, These ships brought with them a detachment of the newly-formed New South Wales corps—a gang of gaol-birds and ruffians raised for the service by Lieutenant-Colonel Grose—and the three last-named vessels established for themselves an infamous notoriety. The three ships brought 1038 persons, of whom 273 died on the passage, 486 were landed sick at Port Jackson, and 124 died in the hospital at Sydney.

This is what Tench says about them:—'Seventeen pounds, in full of all expence, was the sum paid … for the passage of each person. And this sum was certainly competent to afford fair profit to the merchant who contracted. But there is reason to believe that some of those who were employed to act for him violated every principle of justice, and rioted on the spoils of misery, for want of controlling power to check their enormities. No doubt can be entertained that a humane and liberal Government will interpose its authority to prevent the repetition of such flagitious conduct.

'Although the convicts had landed from these ships with every mark of meagre misery, yet it was soon seen that a want of room, in which more conveniences might have been stowed for their use, had not caused it. Several of the masters of the transports immediately opened stores and exposed large quantities of goods to sale, which, though at most extortionate prices, were eagerly bought up.'

Phillip felt deeply for the victims of this system. On 13th July 1790 he wrote to Lord Grenville:—

'I will not, Sir, dwell on the scene of misery which the hospitals and sick -tents exhibited when those people were landed, but it would be a want of duty not to say that it was occasioned by the contractors having crowded too many on board those ships, and from their being too much confined during the passage. The convicts having the liberty of the deck depended on the agent and on the masters of the ships; the agent died on the passage, and the masters say it was granted so far as was consistent with their own safety, and that many of the convicts were sick when sent from the hulks. I believe, Sir, while the masters of the transports think their own safety depends on admitting few convicts on deck at a time, and most of them with irons on, which prevent any kind of exercise, numbers must always perish on so long a voyage, and many of those now received are in such a situation from old complaints, and so emaciated from what they have suffered on the voyage, that they will never be capable of any labour. … By the surgeon's returns of this day there are 488 under medical treatment; when the ships arrived we had not fifty people sick in the colony.'

The crisis was now over, and the outlook for the little colony brighter. We can imagine Phillip sleeping sounder o' nights, forgetting for a time what for many years to come was to be the most anxious care of the Governor—the food supply—and turning his attention to the progress of 'our public buildings.' But, alas I the despatches sent by the Second Fleet brought news that ten more vessels were on their way with convicts. They arrived between the months of July and December 1791, and out of their complement of 2061 prisoners, 1863 were landed, the rest having died on the voyage, and 576 of those landed were ill and incapable of work for many weeks after debarcation. There is, however, no need to tell the story of the 'Third Fleet'—the arrival of the convict ships for years to come was to be the regular and chief event in the colony's history.