Admiral Phillip/Chapter 4

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The saloon passenger on a sixteen-knot Orient or P. and O. liner, during the six weeks of ennui enforced by a passage from London to Sydney, can sometimes, if he tries very hard, find something to growl about; the bedroom steward may bring his morning coffee a moment or two late, and so forth; but such trifles are not great hardships compared with those which attended the method of carrying emigrants followed in the 'favourite clippers' that brought out the bulk of Australian settlers before trade unionism and 'one-man-one-vote' politics put a stop to emigration. Everyone has read stories of how emigrants were accommodated. The foul-smelling, unpainted, deal-boarded part of the ship's hold where passengers were stowed, bred a just discontent among the half-starved exiles, and the captain of an emigrant ship was kept pretty well occupied in allaying the irritation of his passengers, who were generally of a class not to bear their woes silently.

Between a convict transport and an emigrant ship, the difference in accommodation was little enough—notwithstanding the nonsense that has been written about the horrors of all Australian convict transports. The true reason of the dreadfulness of some of these voyages lay in the fact that the 'tween decks of a convict transport generally carried, necessarily crowded together, for a long spell of idleness, a hundred or more of the worst class of criminals, often as physically diseased as they were unhealthily minded.

Upon Phillip lay the task of conducting, in a fleet of transports on a six months' voyage to a country practically unknown, about a thousand passengers, of whom more than seven hundred were probably in every respect the worst that could have been selected in the gaols of England. Many of them were desperate wretches whose presence on board the ships was a more constant and greater menace to their safety than all the dangers known and unknown of the sea. The conduct of this voyage is, therefore, no unimportant test of the senior officer's fitness to command, and it naturally forms a chapter in his life.

Phillip had under him intelligent and loyal subordinates, and from nearly all of them he received valuable aid from the beginning. But here again all was not plain sailing. Major Ross, the commandant of marines and Lieutenant-Governor, stands out as the one malcontent on the Governor's staff, and from the time of his appointment until his return to England, Ross generally hampered and never assisted Phillip. Hunter, the captain of the Sirius, King, the second lieutenant, Collins, lieutenant of marines, doing duty as Judge Advocate, are the three men whose names will be longest remembered in the history of the expedition. The two first afterwards became in turn Governors of New South Wales, while Collins subsequently served as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land. Hunter and Collins both published accounts of the settlement, and these works, with others by their brother officers,—Tench (of the marines), and White (the principal surgeon),—and the journals of King are to-day the storehouses from which Australian historians draw most of their materials. Phillip, during his command, was on good terms with all these men—but King was his especial friend.

The fleet arrived at Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, on the 3d of June 1787. Since its sailing on 13th May, the surgeon's report showed that 8 persons had died, 81 were on the sick list, and 1015 were the total number on the victualling list of the fleet.

The voyage so far had been without notable incident. Some of the prisoners on the Scarborough formed a plot to take the ship. Two of the ring-leaders were taken on board the flagship and given each two dozen lashes by the boatswain's mate, and were then placed on board another transport.

This punishment of two dozen lashes is worth the reader's attention, as we shall, later on, refer to a charge made by one of the historians of the First Fleet that Phillip's punishments were 'not frequent, but prompt and terrible.' Says Collins, referring to the cause of this mutiny: 'Captain Phillip had very humanely, a few days previous to this scheme, directed that the irons with which most of the male convicts had hitherto been confined should be taken off them generally, that they might have it more in their power to strip their clothes off at night when they went to rest, be also more at their ease during the day, and have the further advantage of being able to wash and keep themselves clean. This indulgence had left it more in the power of those who might be so disposed to exert their ingenuity in so daring an attempt.'

Before the fleet sailed, Major Ross had taken care that his men's comfort should not be entirely overlooked. The Government had omitted to supply wine or spirit rations for use after arrival in the colony to the detachment. Phillip interested himself in the matter, and worried the authorities into complying with its urgent request for a 'moderate distribution of the above-ment'd article.' The Major did not similarly report the lack of a much more important part of the equipment of the force; for Phillip, writing to Lord Sydney from Teneriffe, complains that the marines have next to no ammunition! Yet he does not blame Ross, who was really responsible. 'I understood,' he wrote, 'that they would be furnished with ammunition, but, since we sailed, find that they were only supplied with what was necessary for immediate service while in port; and we have neither musquet balls nor paper for musquet cartridges; nor have we any armourer's tools.' He begs his lordship to send out supplies of ammunition by the first ship, and also some women's clothing which was left behind and for want of which 'we shall be much distressed.' In another letter from the same place he says:—

'In general the convicts have behaved well. I saw them all yesterday for the first time' (since leaving England). 'They are quiet and contented, tho' there are amongst them some compleat villains.' And no musket balls ! Some months to be passed yet at sea, the new country peopled by strange blacks; the new colonists, for the greater part, more to be guarded against than these savages, and the garrison of 200 marines without cartridges! Well was it for the safety of the expedition that the convicts did not know of Ross's carelessness.

One incident happened at Santa Cruz, tragical enough, of the kind some of us remember at the old Surrey Theatre. A convict escaped and got into a boat lying astern of one of the transports. His flight was soon discovered; and then began a man hunt which lasted a whole day. By-and-by the fugitive was found lying at the foot of a rock on the west shore of the bay. From the ship's side he had been seen trying to climb the steep rocks, and at every attempt falling back exhausted, bruised and bleeding.

A boat, with armed searchers, rowed towards the spot. The convict made desperate attempts to get out of his pursuers' reach, and the people on the ships watched the scene as from the 'front of the house'—a gallery audience. The poor wretch was taken at the muzzle of a levelled musket. A flogging and heavy leg irons was all he got out of his dash for liberty.

Here is a story of another kind. The seamen of one of the transports clubbed together and handed their metal spoons to a 'coiner' among the prisoners. The fellow turned the spoons into good imitations of the silver dollars of the Brazils, and the sailors tried to pass the counterfeit money. At the first attempt the fraud was detected, and the sailors, to save themselves, confessed. Their grog was stopped, and the coiner was flogged.

The fleet stayed a week at Teneriffe exchanging courtesies with the Governor of the island, and receiving on board fresh provisions and water. On the 5th of August the ships reached Rio de Janeiro, where Phillip took in a great quantity of stores, including 10,000 musket balls.

From Rio he wrote several letters to Lord Sydney and Nepean, and in them gave a detailed account of his progress thus far. The English captain's former service under the Portuguese Government obtained for him from the Viceroy many civilities, and the generous reception of the fleet at the Brazils was very different to its treatment at the hands of the Dutch Governor at the Cape of Good Hope, the next port of call.

During the stay of the ships at Rio, Phillip caused an observatory to be established on shore, and a party of navigating officers were landed to make observations, test the rate of the timepieces and so forth, while the ships were cleaned inside with disinfectants, and the convicts minutely inspected. Fresh meat, vegetables and oranges were freely given to them as precautions against scurvy, and Phillip himself went among them, threatening severe punishment to the unruly, and speaking a few words of encouragement to those who evinced any signs of a disposition to redeem their characters.

Just before the Sirius sailed, a Portuguese soldier stowed away. The man was discovered and brought before Phillip. He said that having been absent from his duty some time he feared to return, and begged to be received on board and carried to New Holland. 'Put him in one of our boats and take him ashore,' was Phillip's curt order.

The man, as the sailors led him towards the gangway, turned pale and trembled at the prospective punishment.

'And,' added Phillip, 'land him at some spot where he can get back to barracks without his absence being discovered.'

A similar instance occurred at the Cape, when a Dutch soldier tried to get a passage on one of the transports, and Phillip returned him to his regiment, first obtaining a promise of pardon from the authorities.

Soon after the vessels cleared Rio, they met with their first bad weather, and the five weeks and four days which they occupied in reaching the Cape were on this account very trying to the closely confined prisoners. But the care taken to observe cleanliness, and the stock of wholesome food procured from Rio, preserved them in good health, and the sick list was a small one.

A letter to Nepean from Phillip, written while at Rio, and dated 2d September 1787, shows that he kept his eyes open to other matters besides the one he had in hand:—

'This is my last letter, as I hope to sail to-morrow. You know how much I was interested in the intended expedition against Monte Vedio, and that it was said that the Spaniards had more troops than I supposed. The following account I have from a person who was there (through) all the war, and I am certain that the account is exact : One Regiment under 700; Four Companys of Artillery, 400; Dragoons, 400; Two Battalions of Infantry, 700. These were divided on the north and south shores, and in different towns. Monte Vedio would not have been defended, as half these troops could not have been drawn together. Of this you will be so good as to inform the Lords Sydney and Landsdown; it will corroborate what I mentioned before I left town. The 21st being the Prince of Portugal's birthday, and the Vice-King receiving the compliments of all the officers, I waited on him with those I had presented to him on our arrival. The Sirius fired 2i guns, having the flag of Portugal hoisted at the fore-topmast-head, and the Union at the mizen. He seemed much pleased with this compliment, and we part perfectly satisfied with each other.'

One of Phillip's despatches from Rio contains these words:—

'One hundred and fifteen pipes of rum has been purchased for the use of the garrison, when landed, and for the use of the detachment at this port.' This purchase was to be the cause of much trouble in the future. To this day some of the oldest inhabitants of the colony will tell you that they can recall the time when an acre of land could be bought for a bottle of rum. Such transactions were common enough early in the century, and one of the principal and oldest buildings in Sydney is still remembered as portion of the old Rum Hospital, a title it earned as a store in the days of the Rum currency.

The fleet arrived at the Cape on the 13th of October 1787, and sailed from Table Bay on the 12th of the following month. During the time, in spite of a very cool reception from the Dutch Governor, Phillip secured plenty of fresh provisions and a great quantity of plants, seeds and live stock, but on account of the heavy charges and the want of room to stow them, the amount purchased was very much less than it should have been. What Australians now rightly speak of as 'our great pastoral industry' was started with fewer than fifty sheep, half a dozen cows, a couple of bulls, six horses, and some pigs and goats. It is perhaps superfluous to state that many Australian sheep-breeders of to-day could not off-hand tell you within a thousand or two how many sheep they own.

The enthusiastic projectors of the new colony had great faith in its future as a rival to the Spice Islands, and Phillip, obedient to instructions, did not forget to take on board at Rio all sorts of seeds and plants with this end in view, but the selection turned out unsuitable to the new country, and what was embarked at the Cape proved to be much more useful, probably because Phillip was aided in his choice by a botanist—Mason—who was residing there.

The fleet left Table Bay, as already stated, on the 12th of November, and on the 25th of the same month Phillip decided to go on board the Supply, which sailed better than the Sirius, with the view of reaching Botany Bay first and making some preparations for the landing of the colonists. The Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship accompanied the Supply, and the fleet, thus divided into two squadrons, continued the voyage without noteworthy incident until their arrival within a couple of days of each other at Botany Bay.

'Thus,' writes Collins, the Judge-Advocate, 'under the blessing of God was happily completed in eight months and one week, a voyage which before it was undertaken the mind hardly dared venture to contemplate, and on which it was impossible to reflect without some apprehensions as to its termination. … We had sailed five thousand and twenty-one leagues … without meeting any accident, in a fleet of eleven sail, nine of which were merchantmen that had never before sailed in that distant and imperfectly explored ocean. … Only thirty-two persons had died since leaving England, among whom were to be included one or two deaths by accident; although previous to our departure it was generally conjectured that before .we should have been a month at sea one of the transports would have been converted into a hospital ship. But it fortunately happened otherwise. The high health which was apparent in every countenance' (when Botany Bay was reached) 'was to be attributed not only to the refreshments we met with at Rio de Janeiro and the Cape of Good Hope, but to the excellent quality of the provisions with which we were supplied by Mr Richards, junior, the contractor; and the spirits visible in every eye was to be ascribed to the general joy and satisfaction which immediately took place on finding ourselves arrived at that port which had been so much and so long the subject of our most serious reflections, the constant theme of our conversations.'

In similar language Tench and White describe the satisfactory termination of the voyage.

If there are now living any descendants of 'Mr Richards, junior, the contractor,' let them treasure this certificate to the honesty of their ancestor, for his was a virtue rare among the contractors of his day.

A youngster named Southwell, a master's mate on the Sirius, from whose letters much of interest can be extracted, has a word of praise for Phillip's care of the people in his charge. He says:—

'The Commodore's conduct has endeared him to most of them, and, indeed, I believe few could have been found better calculated for the occasion than our commander. He is a man who has seen much of the Service and much of the world, and has studied it. He is possessed of great good sense, well informed, indefatigable upon service, is humane and at the same time spirited and resolute; for of his courage, fame allows him to have given honorable proofs on former occasions.'

And again:—

'The Governor is certainly one of a thousand, and is very considerate in everything, and extraordinary clever in every contrivance and method to render the ships healthy and airy.'

This same Southwell afterwards quarrelled with Phillip, and what he has to say against the Governor will be duly recorded; meanwhile let Phillip have the full benefit of his favourable testimony:—

'I have to add that on coming on board, after so long a cessation from duty, I thought it would look better not to sue for any indulgence in that respect, and, indeed, was so much mended that there was no very great merit to me on that acc't. Accordingly, I kept the deck, and acted in my station, but for very few hours, for we had hardly got the anchors up before the Governor told me by no means to keep watch or to expose myself to the weather till I found myself fully recovered in health and strength, for he cou'd perceive I was much reduced and very different from when he saw me in town. This was very kind and considerate, and I made my best acknowledgements; and as I really thought a few nights' recess would ensure the matter and compleate my health, I told him I would make use of the indulgence for a few nights, but he most obligingly told me to lay by both day and night till I felt myself perfectly well, and that I need only come on deck when I thought I might derive advantage from air and exercise. He frequently asks me how I do, and has desired me to want for nothing that he has on board, and to send to his steward for it without ceremony, for that anything he has is quite at my service, and he shou'd be happy it would do me good. I am the more particular on this head, as I know it will be of a pleasing savour to your affectionate solicitude for my welfare—indeed, he is very kind to all, and we are very happy in our worthy commander.'

That the modern voyager may the better understand why Collins rejoices at the successful conduct of this sea journey, here is an extract from a letter from Port Jackson on the voyage of the Second Fleet of transports:—

'Oh! if you had but seen the shocking sight of the poor creatures that came out in the three ships it would make your heart bleed. They were almost dead. Very few could stand, and they were obliged to sling them like goods and hoist them out of the ships, they were so feeble, and they died ten or twelve a day when first landed. There died in three ships alone on the way out 347 men and women. They were not so long as we' (the First Fleet) 'were coming here, but they were confined, and had bad victuals and stinking water. Governor Phillip was very angry, and scolded the captains a great deal, and, I heard, intended to write to London about it, for I heard him say it was murdering them.'

Eleven sail of ships in the First Fleet, 700 convicts, many of whom embarked ill, but only 32 deaths. What a terrible contrast was afforded by the Second Fleet!