Fatal Shore or Land of Opportunity?
Thank you David. Thank you Andrew for your enlightening speech. Thank you also to James Philips, Greg Lindsay and Cassandra Wilkinson. It is a delight to be here.
What I would like to do is take some snapshots from my book. You should understand that my book is not about Australia. Only four chapters out of 14 are addressed to that topic. One chapter is set in New South Wales, one on the voyage, and two chapters are set in England and concern the preparation, planning and thinking that lay behind the establishment of the colony. The other 10 chapters are about the life of a British naval officer. I would not want anyone to think that the whole book is concentrated on the foundation of
No Dumping Ground
It may be however, that the inspiration for the title to this talk came from one of the epigraphs that appears at the beginning of my book.
It is a quote from the highly regarded historian Alan Atkinson in which he said ‘Botany Bay, it has been argued, was meant as
a Gulag before Gulag… Nothing could be further from the truth.’ What Atkinson was doing was directly refuting the central thesis of Robert Hughes’ book The Fatal Shore. Now Robert Hughes is a wonderful and engaging writer but he was carried away by his enthusiasm in The Fatal Shore. He gave a broad picture of the convict experience but in doing so, he did not focus on the original decisions and thinking behind the establishment of the colony. The colony of New South Wales was not designed by its original architects as a dumping ground. This is why Alan Atkinson refuted the ‘Gulag’ theory and said nothing
could be further from the truth.
However, things changed for the worse after Phillip left, when land grants to the convicts, marines and seamen proliferated, and
new settlers commenced to arrive. The French Revolutionary Wars were followed by the Napoleonic Wars. The NSW Corps, which
became known as the Rum Corps, arrived in the colony. And commerce, greed and land ownership took hold and transformed
the nature of the colony. But that was not the way Sydney, Nepean and Phillip envisioned it when they started. It is worthwhile giving you a little context as to how this absurdly ambitious Enlightenment experiment originally started. Everyone knows that after the end of the American Revolutionary Wars in 1783, Virginia and Maryland—the colonies to which convicts were mostly sent—became unavailable for transportation. The way convicts were treated in those pre-war days was far from satisfactory.
The British government had no interest other than consigning the convicts to merchants. The merchants signed receipts for the
convicts, took ownership of them and transported them to the east coast of the United States, or the Thirteen Colonies as they were known then, and sold them. They sold them effectively in bondage to farmers and others, who used them in their agricultural, domestic or trading activities. They were usually never heard of again. There was no government control. The convicts became the property of white land owners, principally in Virginia and Maryland.
What Sydney, Nepean and Phillip planned for the colony of New South Wales was quite different. It was intended that the
convicts would form the basis of a new settlement. The twin pillars of this intended new society were the cultivation of the land and the issuing of land grants to provide an incentive to convicts. A popular sentiment at the time was that ‘one sure way to convert a thief into an honest person was to give him a grant of land’. At the time, Thomas Jefferson and other philosophers regarded the ‘cultivators of the land’ as the heroes of society. This led Sydney, Nepean and Phillip to think that they would build a society by using the convicts as the basis for it and giving them the incentive of having the land; owning something which they would never otherwise have had the opportunity to own, then cultivating it, having children and families and developing a new society.
In England, at the time, there was a popular clamour for the offshore detention of convicts. The Lord Mayor of London and many other politicians echoed the public’s displeasure at the presence of large numbers of convicts in hulks on the Thames and in the overflowing prisons. This was a pressing issue, but it was not the only issue. There were several other factors that influenced the thinking behind the establishment of the settlement in New South Wales.
William Pitt, like his father before him, aspired to have a global commercial trading network. The British were poorly served south
of the equator. In the Atlantic they only had St Helena. They did not have anything in southern Africa at this time. The Dutch owned the Cape of Good Hope. They had India but that was north of the equator. They had nothing in the southern Indian Ocean and nothing in the South Pacific and they were concerned about French intrusions in those parts of the world, specifically in India. They also were very concerned about the need to have naval materials to maintain the India Squadron based in the Bay of Bengal. The standard workhorse of the navy at the time was the 74-gun ship. It required enough hemp for about 40 miles (64km) of rigging, rope
and cordage and enough flax for approximately five acres of sail.
As well as this, each ship required approximately 75 acres of mature oak trees for timber. So the demand on supplies was huge. When the India Squadron was in trouble during the American Revolutionary Wars, Whitehall soon realised that it was not satisfactory to rely on shipments coming from Europe around southern Africa. The prevailing view was that those supplies could be sourced from Norfolk Island, something that Cook and Sir Joseph Banks had previously reported on, somewhat over-optimistically.
The other consideration was that there was a real apprehension about a French naval build-up. The French had been decimated in the Seven Years War 1756-1763. And they did not recover much territory in the American Revolutionary Wars. They were clearly rebuilding their navy. Their politicians wanted to regain some of the lands and territories they had lost. French pride had been dented. In fact France had entered into negotiations with the Dutch with a view to the Dutch and the French challenging the British in India. That is really why Phillip was sent to France as an espionage agent in the two years before he was commissioned as the prospective Governor of New South Wales. He was sent specifically to report back on the French naval build-up at Toulon, the naval port on the Mediterranean and the other ports of France, including Brest. He would have come across La Perouse at Brest at the time.
Let me give you a few dates to put in perspective the military and political events of the day. Phillip was recalled from France in about August 1786, after which the British commenced preparation of the expedition to New South Wales in earnest. His recall was preceded by these events: in February Sir James Harris, who was the pre-eminent diplomat of the day and the British Ambassador at The Hague, warned that ‘the intentions of France in forming a connection with the Dutch are too evident to admit of doubt’. Then in the next few months the French engaged in provocative activities in Bengal, challenging British authority. On 1 August Harris wrote that there would soon be a major development and that France intended to send troops to the Dutch bases in India. On 8 August he reported that the crisis is “drawing nearer and nearer every hour”. On 16 August Sydney, the Home Secretary, responsible strangely enough for most aspects of foreign affairs, sent an account of the French naval capacity to King George III. George III replied with a letter which he dispatched within a few hours, in which he said something like this, “France certainly under the name of flutes (a French word for military ships disguised as transport ships), can soon collect a considerable naval force in the East Indies”. Three days later Pitt’s Cabinet decided to establish a settlement in New South Wales. They made that decision on a Saturday and announced it on the Monday. These were features of the rich tapestry that made the British decision to found the colony of New South Wales urgent and necessary.
The humanitarian aspects of the proposal to establish a colony in New South Wales deserve special mention. Phillip wrote that he was
“serving the cause of humanity”. I have already explained the basic difference between the way the convicts were treated in Virginia and Maryland before the American Revolutionary Wars and the way they were proposed to be treated in New South Wales. What was hoped to be achieved under the New South Wales experiment was that the convicts would be improved (‘improvement’ was a key word of the Enlightenment) and reformed; that the men would become peasant farmers; the women would raise children; and that the land would be settled. These goals were infused by a utopian idea of a simple rural society without money, where convict men and women would become re-born through hard physical labour and subsistence farming. The pillars of this scheme of improvement were, as I have mentioned, the cultivation of the land and the distribution of land grants to deserving persons.
Let me also tell you something about Phillip’s attitude to the Aborigines. His instructions from George III stated, among many other things, that he was to “conciliate the affections of the Aborigines” and that he was to encourage everyone under his control to “live in amity and kindness with them” and to punish all who would “wantonly destroy them or give them any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their several occupations”. There is no doubt however, that in a well-intentioned but misguided eighteenth century sort of way, they did cause harm. Phillip wanted to cultivate the friendship of the Aborigines but he did not really appreciate that his men were actually invading their lands, destroying their fishing grounds, ruining their oyster beds, chopping down their trees and undermining their sources of sustenance and living. But Phillip tried hard, despite his apparent obliviousness to those matters, to cultivate the friendship of the Aborigines. At first they stayed away, which caused Phillip to be desperately upset although he should not have been surprised. Eventually after about 10 months, he decided that something had to be done, so he sent a group across to Manly where they effectively kidnapped Arabanoo. In due course, Arabanoo and Phillip became close comrades. They could often be seen pottering about the harbour in a boat together. When the smallpox epidemic struck in the second year of the settlement, Arabanoo and Phillip went around together to the coves and little beaches picking up dying and sick Aborigines and brought them back to the hospital at the Rocks. The hospital was the first establishment that Phillip established.
Another issue that deserves comment is the substantial gender imbalance. Some people predicted dire consequences. Phillip’s
instructions were therefore to procure ‘comfort women’ from the Pacific Islands. This was something that Phillip studiously ignored. He actually wrote to Sydney saying that to do so would only be bringing those women to “pine away in misery”. Instead he suggested that it may be best if the ‘most abandoned’ of the female convicts might be “permitted to receive the visits of the convicts in the limits allotted to them at certain hours and under certain restrictions”. In other words he wanted state sponsored prostitution. Sydney and Nepean would not come at that but I suspect it happened and Phillip turned a blind eye. Although tolerant of prostitution, he did however take a strong view about sodomy and murder. The actual words he used were these “For either of these crimes I would wish to confine the criminal till an opportunity offered of delivering him as a prisoner to the natives of New Zealand, and let them eat him”.
Slavery is another issue on which Phillip was ahead of his time. You will have to read more about it in the book. He had deep personal
experience of slavery in Brazil under the Portuguese and in Cape Town under the Dutch. He saw the very worst of slavery in those places. As you know, ultimately over five million West Africans were shipped to Brazil and other states of South America. And that
is not including those who were sent to North America. Phillip saw the mines where they worked; and he saw the Dutch Slave Code in operation. It is no surprise that he wrote before he left England that “There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves”. So the colony was to be established with no slaves, no currency, and convicts who were intended to be emancipated and given land in order to become free settlers, who would cultivate the land and develop the colony. Phillip was on the right side of the slavery issue. Pitt had already spoken against slavery. And Pitt’s closest friend was William Wilberforce. If you ever saw the film Amazing Grace you will understand the relationship between those two men. William Wilberforce campaigned for 25 years to stop the British slave trade. Pitt actually said, a little while after Phillip came to New South Wales that “no nation in Europe… has… plunged so deeply into this guilt as Great Britain”.
Another aspect of Phillip’s thinking about the colony, and one which I particularly enjoy, is the imagery that emerges from the fact that he decided to call the colony ‘Albion’. Albion is the ancient synonym for Britain. You can read about it in The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and many other places. It has been around for many centuries. Phillip was in good company in choosing this name because when Sir Francis Drake claimed the northern coast of California for Elizabeth I in 1579, he called that land ‘New Albion’. Phillip had grand notions of creating a new Britain. In fact he said that he thought the colony of New South Wales would one day be “the greatest acquisition that Great Britain ever made” and “the empire of the East”.
There is one feature of the story of the arrival of the British at Sydney that I always enjoy talking about. I usually play Ennio Morricone’s Gabriel’s Oboe as I tell this story. Some of you will know that the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay between 18 and 20 January 1788. Phillip had always been rather distrustful of Banks’ excessively enthusiastic descriptions of Botany Bay and he did not like the look of the charts that Cook had provided. As an experienced naval officer, I think he could see that Botany Bay was too exposed to the elements and probably too shallow. And the water supply was doubtful. So even before he left Britain, he obtained permission to establish the settlement in any other port that he thought fit. He had seen the charts and noticed the entrance to Port Jackson. Cook had sailed past Port Jackson and did not enter. No one knew what was within. As soon as the last of the eleven ships arrived, Phillip took three longboats with eight or ten seamen and a few junior officers in each. The boats rowed up from Botany Bay, about three leagues (approximately 16km), and entered for the first time through the majestic portal that we now know as the Heads.
Phillip and his cohort were the first white men in history to go through the Heads. The young men recorded observations full of
wonder at what they saw. As they rowed quietly up the harbour, they moved their attention from its sparkling ultramarine waters
to the shoreline, where they were taken by the tall trees, the rocky outcrops, the exotic flora and the sense of untouched Edenic beauty. The intense light and brilliant colours filled them with curiosity and wonder. Singing from the tree tops were strange and unusual birds, raucous shrieking cockatoos, absurd laughing kookaburras and brightly coloured lorikeets. Worgan, one of the surgeons, thought that “its beauty beggared all description”. Bowes Smyth, another surgeon, said that the flight of the parrots and the singing of the birds “made all around appear like an enchantment”. Collins, the Judge Advocate, said later when he wrote down his observations and thoughts, that he earnestly hoped that the convicts might be reformed and we might not sully that purity of nature by “the introduction of vice, profaneness and immorality”. He paraphrased John Milton the poet and evoked a sense of the founding of a new civilisation. This was exactly what they were doing.
When Phillip got the convicts out of the ships and began to establish the colony, he did a number of significant things. First of all there was never a stockade. The convicts were allowed substantial freedom of movement. They could wear their own clothes and build their own huts. Unless they re-offended they were not put in chains. They were given as much slack as was reasonable. Grace Karskens describes this in much more detail than I did, and I recommend you read her book. Within months of their arrival, some were
complaining that the marines and sailors were punished with the utmost severity for the most trivial offences while the convicts were pardoned, or at least punished in a very slight manner, for ‘crimes of the blackest dye’. Phillip clearly favoured the convicts.
Then there was the question of rations. The marines, in particular, were upset and indeed surprised that they were only given the same
rations as the convicts. One wrote that he could not believe that the administration really intended “that the only difference between the allowance of provisions served to the officer and served to the convict be only half a pint (per day) of vile Rio spirits”. In other words, the marines could have some South American rum but apart from that, the rations were the same. Major Ross, now consigned to the dustbin of history, who was the Vice Governor and an execrable man, said “Could I possibly have imagined that I was to be served with, for instance, no more butter than any of the convicts, I most certainly would not have left England”. So the colony from the first days was a more egalitarian place than most Englishmen could have imagined. It was an experiment; a function of the Enlightenment; and it was absurdly ambitious. But it all came together. We owe more to Phillip than most of us can possibly realise.