Admiral Phillip/Chapter 13

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In the early days of the settlement, contemporary chroniclers relate a few incidents showing that all was not dull routine. There were occasionally little social entertainments which helped to make the hideous prison atmosphere more endurable, and in spite of the peculiar character of most of the first colonists, and the ever-present dread of starvation, the officials and even the prisoners sometimes kept holiday.

For example, on the King's birthday, 1789, the first play acted in the colony was staged. Tench reports the performance in these words:—

'The anniversary of His Majesty's birthday was celebrated, as heretofore, at the Government House with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of The Recruiting Officer was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of His Excellency and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known; and I am not ashamed to confess that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenances of sixty persons, of various descriptions, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Some of the actors acquitted themselves with great spirit, and received the praises of the audience; a prologue and an epilogue, written by one of the performers, were also spoken on the occasion; which, although not worth inserting here, contained some tolerable allusions to the situation of the parties, and the novelty of a stage-representation in New South Wales.'

The same writer, when describing his first sight of the French vessels under La Pérouse, conveys to the reader's mind in a few words how remote was the new country from civilisation. The announcement of a ship in sight was one that required him who made it to be a man of 'great veracity.' Writes Tench:—

'But judge of my surprise on hearing from a sergeant, who ran down almost breathless to the cabin where I was dressing, that a ship was seen off the Harbour's mouth. At first I only laughed, but knowing the man who spoke to me to be of great veracity, and hearing him repeat his information, I flew on deck, on which I had barely set my feet when the cry of "another sail" struck on my astonished ears. Confounded by a thousand ideas which arose in my mind in an instant, I sprang upon the barricado, and plainly descried two ships of considerable size standing in for the mouth of the bay. By this time the alarm had become general, and everyone appeared lost in conjecture. Now they were Dutchmen sent to dispossess us, and, the moment after, storeships from England with supplies for the settlement. It was by Governor Phillip that this mystery was at length unravelled, and the cause of the alarm pronounced to be two French ships, which, it was now recollected, were on a voyage of discovery in the Southern Hemisphere.'

There is now probably no hour in the twenty-four when a vessel is not passing over the same spot as that where the Frenchmen were sighted.

Among the notorious prisoners who arrived in Phillip's time was Barrington, the pickpocket—a sort of Brummel in his profession. Tench writes of him thus:—

'But before I bade adieu to Rose Hill, in all probability for the last time of my life, it struck me that there yet remained one object of consideration not to be slighted. Barrington had been in the settlement between two and three months, and I had not seen him. I saw him with curiosity. He is tall, approaching to six feet, slender, and his gait and manner bespeak liveliness and activity. Of that elegance and fashion, with which my imagination had decked him (I know not why), I could distinguish no trace. Great allowance should, however, be made for depression, and unavoidable deficiency of dress. His face is thoughtful and intelligent; to a strong cast of countenance, he adds a penetrating eye and a prominent forehead; his whole demeanour is humble, not servile. Both on his passage from England and since his arrival here, his conduct has been irreproachable. He is appointed high-constable of the settlement of Rose Hill, a post of some respectability, and certainly one of importance to those who live here. His knowledge of men, particularly of that part of them into whose morals, manners and behaviour he is ordered especially to inspect, eminently fit him for the office. I cannot quit him without bearing my testimony, that his talents promise to be directed, in future, to make reparation to society for the offences he has heretofore committed against it.'

And King, in one of his letters, says that 'the convicts on board the different ships behaved extremely well, and Mr Barrington is now a religious convert. He performs service, and gives a sermon twice on Sundays.'

Religion was not altogether absent from the settlement, although the British Government did not trouble itself to provide a very elaborate clerical establishment. The only provision of this kind was the appointment, at the last moment before the fleet sailed, of the Rev. Richard Johnson, who according to one authority was 'one of the people called Methodists.'

Phillip, King and Hunter all speak well of the disinterestedness of the man, and the good done by him in the face of the greatest difficulties, and Johnson testifies to the help and encouragement always given him by Phillip, who made him a magistrate of the colony. Grose, Phillip's immediate successor, quarrelled with the parson, and there was afterwards much friction between the two. He was not paid handsomely—£182 was allowed him by the Government—and for five years after landing he was without a church. Early in 1791 Phillip began the erection of a place of worship, but before it was finished the exigencies of the colony, as we shall hear, required its conversion into a jail, and subsequently into a granary, so that the services were generally performed in the open air, or in 'an old boathouse close by the waterside, not fit for a stable.'

Poor Johnson thus wrote to Phillip, in March 1792, detailing his grievances:—

'As to my habitation I am very well satisfied; it is pretty commodious and convenient—few better provided for in this respect in the colony than myself. My principal family complaint is, that I cannot better provide for them. We are now eight in number. … Our allowance … is scanty, and is likely to be still less. 'Tis seldom we get a fresh meal, and then in general it is at a dear rate. Fresh pork, one shilling per pound; a moderate size fowl, three, four or five shillings, and sometimes more. Indian corn, ten shillings per bushel. Everything else, whether from on ship or on shore, in the same proportion. Have frequently asked to have the privilege of a man to shoot for me now and then; this favour I never have been granted.'

Phillip did his best to help him, but that best was not much. When the Lady Juliana storeship arrived in June 1790, the Governor told Johnson that 400 acres were to be surveyed as Church ground, and this promise was fulfilled, but he could spare no labour even to clear the ground. Surely, writes the unfortunate Methodist, the Government did not mean him to use axe and spade himself? Nevertheless, being a man of energy he did make the attempt, and by continuous toil managed to better his position somewhat. 'The sound of four hundred acres,' he says plaintively, 'will appear great. But what. Sir, are four hundred or four thousand acres full of large green trees, unless some convicts be allowed to cultivate it?

'I did not come out here as an overseer or as a farmer. I have other things more, much more important, to attend to. My duty as a clergyman fully takes up all my time. Neither will my constitution admit of it—this is much impaired since I came into this country, and at this very time I feel such rheumatic pains and weakness that I can scarcely go through the duties of my office. This brings me to mention another circumstance. I have to perform divine service at three different places, vizt., at Sydney, Parramatta, and at a settlement about three miles to the westward of Parramatta, and at never a one of these three places is there to this day any place of worship erected, nor so much as talked of. The last time I preached at Sydney was in the open air. On the 11th instant we could not have service at all, because of the rain. … By the grace of God, however, I am resolved to go on in the discharge of my duty till I can hold out no longer, and then I must give up and leave this miserable people to spend their Sabbaths in a manner wholly like heathens.

'Last spring there was a foundation of a church laid at Parramatta; before it was finished it was converted into a jail or a lock-up house, and now it is converted into a granary. Have had this place to perform divine service in for several Sundays; but now am again turned out, and must again turn field-preacher there also. I go up to Parramatta as usual once a fortnight—the distance by water about fourteen miles. Generally go up on the Saturday—sometimes four, five, six hours upon the water. On Sunday morning early I now ride up to the new settlement; preach in the open air about seven o'clock to about 600 convicts; at ten and at four in the afternoon I preach at Parramatta. I fear, however, I shall not be able to continue this much longer, especially as the winter is now approaching, unless some places be erected for the purpose. Besides my public duty I have to visit the sick, which at present both at Sydney and Parramatta are a great many; numbers dying every day. Last month above sixty died, and I fear before this expires there will be again near the same number.'

It was no wonder that in such circumstances Phillip was compelled to issue an order that convicts who neglected to attend public worship without good reason would be punished by having part of their flour ration stopped. When the first church was built, Johnson himself worked upon it, and its cost was paid by him.

The chaplain wrote asking to be reimbursed for his outlay, and Grose not only refused to support the application, but did all he could to obstruct the clergyman. To such an extent was this carried that King, in a letter to the Home Department, written when Johnson resigned, said he (Johnson) 'had met with much persecution from Grose when he commanded here.'

William Wilberforce had a high opinion of the chaplain at Botany Bay. In 1794 he wrote to Dundas, who was then at the head of the Home Office, a letter which not only concerns Johnson, but, as the following extract proves, shows there were people in the old country then who were beginning to take an interest in the young colonials:—

'As it may be longer than I expected before I have the pleasure of seeing you, and in the interim Captain Hunter may have sailed, I take up my pen, meaning to detain you as little as I can on the subject of New South Wales. Mr Johnson, the chaplain, has transmitted to me the copy of a letter you must have received from him, wishing me to mediate with you for its favourable reception. However, when I tell you he is one of the worthiest men breathing, the most active, the most humble, and at the same time very little acquainted with the world, I have said enough to excuse the steps he has taken, and to obtain his reimbursement. In truth, £67 for a church is rather a more moderate charge than Government, I believe, is used to, and I know from his private letters that he worked very hard with his own hands, and often by night as well as day. In my last letter, I mentioned to you that I had been informed a sufficient number of tolerably qualified instructors for the children, both of the convicts and the natives, might be found on the spot; but it occurred to me that it would be highly desirable to send over some person to act as a general superintendent of all the schools which should be instituted. … I must add, and will then have done, that the expense of settling schools. Governor Hunter being directed accordingly, both for natives and Europeans, and of establishing a superintendent, will, if you approve of it, be very trifling, compared with the advantages which may follow—even the pecuniary advantages: for the more decently and orderly the colony will be maintained.'

According to Joseph Holt, the Irish rebel who arrived in the colony, a prisoner, in 1800, Johnson's position was then greatly improved. Holt, in his Memoirs, says that in the same year as he arrived, the worthy clergyman returned to England, having acquired a large fortune before leaving by selling his stock and his farm of 600 acres.

We are told that Phillip entertained the officers after the inauguration ceremony, and on royal birthdays, with 'a cold collation,' and Collins relates how, on the arrival of the Second Fleet of transports, 'we learned that our beloved Sovereign had been attacked and for some months afflicted with a dangerous and alarming illness, though now happily recovered. Our distance from his person had not lessened our attachment, and the day following the receipt of this information, being the anniversary of His Majesty's birth, it was kept with every mark of distinction that was in our power. The Governor pardoned all offenders who were under confinement, or under sentence of corporal punishment; the ration was increased for that day that everyone might rejoice; at the Governor's table, where all the officers of the settlement and garrison were met, many prosperous and happy years were fervently wished to be added to His Majesty's life.' … 'On the 9th, being the day appointed for returning thanks … the attendance on divine service was very full. A sermon on the occasion was preached by the Rev. Mr Johnson' … and 'the officers were afterwards entertained at the Governor's, when an address on the occasion of the meeting was resolved to be sent to His Majesty.'

The address as a whole may be 'taken as read,' but the following paragraphs are perhaps of sufficient interest to be placed on record here:—

'The little community which has now the honour of addressing your Excellency for the first time, cannot pass it by without anticipating in idea the many and memorable occasions which will be represented hereafter to His Majesty's faithful subjects of this distant settlement, to congratulate him and his illustrious descendants—whether extending the arts and blessings of peace, or covered with the trophies of necessary and glorious war.

'Although from remoteness of situation, and want of intercourse with the seat of government, we are the last in His Majesty's far extended empire to testify our joy on this occasion, we trust that our zeal and fidelity to his royal person will for ever remain unquestioned, as we know them to be pure and unalterable.'

Phillip sent it to Grenville with the following short and dignified letter, dated June 14th, 1790, with which this chapter may fitly conclude:—

'Sir,— he approbation which His Majesty has been pleased to express of my conduct can only be merited by an earnest desire of faithfully and successfully discharging the charge reposed in me.

'It is, Sir, through you that I am honoured with this mark of attention from my Royal Master, and through you, Sir, I hope that my grateful sense of His Majesty's bounty will be made known.

'The address I received on His Majesty's being happily restored to health I have the honour to enclose; and faithfully attached to His Royal Person, by every tie of duty, gratitude and affection, I rejoice in the happy event.'