Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet

Mike Wood - January 24, 2018

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
An Irish chain gang at Botany Bay, 1830. The Irish Times.

9 – Unless they were Irish

“In 1803 we sailed out to sea
Out from the sweet town of Derry
For Australia bound if we didn’t all drown
And the marks of our fetters we carried

In our rusty iron chains we cried for our weans
Our good women we left in sorrow
As the mainsails unfurled, our curses we hurled
On the English, and thoughts of tomorrow”
“Back Home In Derry”, Bobby Sands

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of Irish history that the Irishmen and women sent to Australia were treated horrendous when they arrived. From Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland in the 1640s – in which an estimated 40% of the population of Ireland were killed – until the time of the First Fleet, discrimination had been a fact of life for people in Ireland.

Britain had instituted a series of laws that denied basic rights to Catholics, who made up over 80% of the Irish population. In 1788, when the First Fleet landed, Catholics could not hold any public office, sit in Parliament, vote, teach or join the army, while property laws were designed to make inheritance as difficult as possible. The penal laws, as they were known, were not just designed to affect Catholics: they also targetted Protestant dissidents, most of whom lived in the North and practised Presbyterianism, a form of the religion imported from Scotland and ill-disposed towards the Anglican English.
Somewhere in the region of 10,000 Irish had already been transported as convicts to the Americas, as well as thousands more as indentured servants and over the course of penal transportation to Australia, some 40,000 would be sent. While their ranks included the same petty criminals that made up the British convicts, it is thought that around a fifth were political prisoners who had risen against the British.

1798 provided the major catalyst. It was in this year that a group known as the United Irishmen – inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and including both Protestants and Catholics – took up arms against the British. Their rising failed, and many of the leaders found themselves on ships to Botany Bay. The colonial authorities treated them horrendously. They were subject to brutality well beyond what other convicts would endure, marked out by their Catholicism – as hated by British in Australia as in the homeland – and their previous actions against the Crown. The New South Wales authorities had asked that Irish not be sent, as they feared their potential for rebellion could threaten the new colony, but arrive they did.

For their own part, the new arrivals were not in a mood to take the punishment lying down. There was an uprising of Irish convicts at Castle Hill, north of Sydney, in 1804, lead by many of those who had fought in 1798. It was planned that the 600 or so prisoners could overwhelm the English and then set a course for the Hawkesbury River, in order to meet up with another 1000 that were put to work there, before marching on Sydney and challenging the colonial government directly. They stole weaponry and mustered a force, but were eventually defeated. Later, 13 were executed and scores more whipped for their part in the rebellion.

There would be no more large-scale uprisings, but the discrimination against the Irish continued. Many of those who would become bushrangers – including Ned Kelly, the most famous bushranger of all – were of Irish descent, often driven to their actions by the prejudices of the British colonial authorities.

The bushrangers, of course, were the Australian equivalents of the outlaws, the escapees from the continent-sized prison. HMP Australia was not as impenetrable as it had been thought to be: plenty escaped – read on to hear their stories.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
Mary Bryant. Emaze.

10 – The prison of Australia was not inescapable

“They got Clear off, but its a very Desperate attempt, to go in an open boat for a run of about 16 or 17 hundred Leags and in pertucalar for a Woman and 2 small Children the eldest not above 3 years of age—but the thoughts of Liberty from such a place as this is Enoufh to induce any Convicts to try all Skeemes to obtain it, as they are the same as Slaves all the time they are in this Country.” John Easty, a marine, on Mary Bryant’s escape

The punishment for escaping penal servitude was harsh. Hanging was the most obvious sentence that resulted, of course, but even for a successful escapee, getting away from the prison colony was just the start of it. Sydney was surrounded by bush of indeterminate thickness and size, which all knew to be populated by Aborigines who were presumed to hold nought but ill will towards any white man. This was not a prison that needed to build walls.

Life on the chain gang was harsh enough for people to take their chances with the Aborigines, however, and while the vast majority failed, there were a few who made it. Among the most famous was Mary Bryant, who travelled on the First Fleet and managed to make it all the way back to England. She had been arrested in her native Cornwall and sentenced to hang, only to have that commuted to transportation. She was pregnant when the First Fleet departed – having met her husband, William Bryant, on a prison hulk – and had the child on the ship. On arrival, her and William soon decided to make an exit and, with William an experienced fisherman, decided that they would do it by sea.

Along with several other convicts, they made one of the most remarkable journeys of all time, stealing a boat from Captain Phillip himself and making it all the way from Sydney Cove to Timor, some 5,000 miles to the north. They claimed to be survivors of a shipwreck, but William drunkenly spilled the beans and they were all arrested and shipped back to England. Both of the couple’s children, as well as William himself, died en route to Britain, but Mary and four of the other escapees made it all the way. By the letter of the law, they should have been executed for escaping the colony, but they avoided the noose and Mary, her seven year sentence having elapsed, was released with a pardon.

Another escapee was William Buckley, who made his way off a work party near Melbourne in 1803 and attempted to walk to Sydney, which he thought was close by. After weeks of wandering aimlessly, he came to meet a family from the Wathaurung people and was taken in by the tribe, learning their language and living among them for the next thirty years. He eventually recontacted the colonists in 1835, when a group of Wathaurung spotted white men on the Bellarine peninsula. Buckley introduced himself and, showing them the tattoo on his arm, revealed himself as a man thought to have been missing for three decades.

Buckley received a pardon from the British authorities and eventually settled on Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania, where he lived until the age of 76 before dying in 1856. His time spent with the Wathaurung, living with them outside of regular contact from Europeans, gleaned much information about their customs and the everyday life of Aboriginal people in southern Australia. Buckley later published a book which told of his adventures in the bush, and he became the source of the Aussie phrase “You’ve got Buckley’s chance”, referring to something very unlikely to happen.

Of course, for those convicts that didn’t successfully escape, there was always a prison within a prison: Norfolk Island.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
A gravestone of a convict on Norfolk Island. The Irish Times.

11 – New South Wales had its own penal colony – Norfolk Island

The flogger was a County of Clare man a very powerful man and [he] took great pleasure in inflicting as much bodily punishment as possible, using such expressions as “Another half pound, mate, off the beggar’s ribs.” His face and clothes usually presented an appearance of a mincemeat chopper, being covered in flesh from the victim’s body. Major Foveaux delighted in such an exhibition and would show his satisfaction by smiling as an encouragement to the flogger. He would sometimes order the victim to be brought before him with these words: Hulloa you damn’d scoundrel how do you like it? and order him to put on his coat and immediately go to his work” Convict Robert Jones

What is to be done to those already in a prison who offend further? In New South Wales, the death penalty was ever present as an option, and one that was regularly used, but the colony could not simply execute everyone. Instead, they had a second option: Norfolk Island. What better way for a society constituted from those sent as far as possible away from one country because of criminality to deal with its criminals than to transport them again, to somewhere even more isolated?

Norfolk Island is some 900 miles to the east of New South Wales, a drop in the Pacific Ocean almost directly in between Australia and New Zealand. It had been occupied by Polynesians but, when it was sighted by Captain Cook, and when he landed it was totally empty. When Captain Phillips returned with the First Fleet, he despatched a ship to the island almost immediately. As mentioned elsewhere, it was a major plan for the new colony in the Antipodes to source valuable pines and flax from Norfolk Island, but when that was swiftly proved to be impossible, a penal settlement was established.

It was renowned for violence, particularly as meted out by one Joseph Foveaux, the administrator. He was a stickler for rules and hellbent on making Norfolk Island into a place of order, with little compassion or care for anyone who stood in his way. Stuck on a rock miles from any form of oversight, he was allowed to indulge his love of discipline to the full. Men were flogged into line and hard work was enforced on all, with convicts breaking rocks from dawn until dusk to create bricks for their own jail. All who complained were whipped. 200 lashes was the standard punishment, with a bucket of salt water tipped over the open back the only medical treatment afforded. There were many tales of convicts deliberately committing crimes so that they could be sent back to Sydney for trial – anywhere but Norfolk Island.

For all Foveaux’s efforts, the first penal colony failed – it was too isolated from Sydney – and the island returned to being uninhabited in 1814. In 1825 a second prison was created with the intention of it becoming a jail for the now large New South Wales. Its isolation was now a strength, and those imprisoned there were thought to be the most recidivist from the Sydney settlement. Ralph Darling, Governor of New South Wales between 1825 and 1831, described it as “as a place of the extremest punishment short of death” while his counterpart in Van Diemen’s Land, George Arthur, remarked that “when prisoners are sent to Norfolk Island, they should on no account be permitted to return. Transportation thither should be considered as the ultimate limit and a punishment short only of death”.

Norfolk Island would survive until 1855, when its inhabitants were moved to a similar facility at Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land. It would soon find new people, however, in the form of the Pitcairn Islanders. Pitcairn had been populated by the crew of the Bounty, who had mutinied against their captain and set up on the isolated island, before moving en masse to Norfolk. To this day, the majority of the population of Norfolk Island are their descendants.

Australia Day Secrets: 12 Incredible Things You Never Knew About The First Fleet
The flag of the Australasian Anti-Transportation League and a forerunner to the modern Australian flag. Flags of Empire.

12 – Transportation was stopped – because Australians didn’t want it any more

“Hurra for the noble Leaguers!
Hurra for our British Queen!
Hurra for the tread of Freemen
Where Bondsmen erst have been!

Peal on, ye shrill-voiced heralds
Your thrilling music tells
Tasmania’s happy future;
Peal on, ye English bells!

From city hall to cottage,
O’er all our island homes,
Ring round your benediction!
The Unstained Future comes!”
The Hobart Town Daily Courier, 1853

As the colony grew, the numbers of free settlers from Britain, Ireland and other countries began to increase. Within 30 years of the landing of the First Fleet, Sydney had grown from an outpost clinging to the side of a continent to a viable colony, fully capable of sustaining itself. In short, it was no longer necessary to force people to go there to keep it going.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that Australia was fruitful and held rewards for those willing to make something of the opportunities there. When convicts came to the end of their sentences, they would take over land and farm it, producing notable profits and generating economic activity – though crucially, they did not own the land on which they were farming. There was an obvious incentive for many poor people in England to migrate to Australia and make something of themselves in the new land, something which the New South Wales colonial government was enthusiastic to promote. By the time of the cessation of transportation to New South Wales in 1840, almost a third of those who came to Australia were coming of their own volition.

The mood in the colonies, too, had changed. The newly prosperous middle classes that had sprung up in the cities objected to the association with criminality – though they were never bothered by the brutal nature of convictism – and campaigned for abolition. It was granted in 1846 across all colonies, but was soon reinstated as the prisons of England immediately began to fill again. The Australians – no longer British colonists – were outraged and the protests against transportation sparked up again.

The last ship would sail for Botany Bay in 1853, by which point gold had already been struck in Victoria. Amid the floods heading for the goldfields, the final detachment of convicts paled into insignificance. From just one ship a year in the first decade to a peak of 36 ships and 7,000 people in the peak year of 1833, a major swath of British society had been uprooted and rehoused in Australia. Across the whole period of transportation, around 150,000 people were sent from the British Isles to the other side of the world against their will. Those sent, exiled from their homes, torn from their families and everything they had ever known, would become the bedrock of a new society.

The vast majority stayed in Australia when their sentences were served. To this day, an estimated 20% of all Australians have convict ancestry and the perceived stain carried by a convict heritage has largely dissipated. Even John Howard, Australian Prime Minister between 1996 and 2007, was the descendant of convicts, and to many Australians, their heritage as the criminal class of Britain is taken as an ironic source of pride, a vindication of the anti-authoritarianism and larrikin spirit of their nation.

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