The story of Side note: began in the early months of 1788, when, under the watchful eyes of Aboriginal people, 11 British tall ships sailed tentatively into the tranquil waters of Port Jackson – the six convict transports, three store ships and two naval escorts of the Side note: .
Following an eight-month voyage, and after abandoning their original camp at Botany Bay, the weary convoy dropped anchor at Warrane, a sunny north-facing crescent of sand and shady trees deep inside a majestic harbour. They named it Sydney Cove.
Slightly more than 1000 travellers came ashore and milled around at the head of a freshwater stream. Here they planted a flag, toasted their king, and looked warily into the surrounding bush.
They named this place Sydney Cove, but to the Gadigal clan who lived there, it was Warrane. Like all the surrounding country, and everywhere beyond, the Sydney region was etched with meaning, interconnected by ceremony and song, and far from deserted. The appropriation of Warrane by the First Fleet was the first step in an unfolding saga of devastation and dispossession of Aboriginal society. Those who survived faced a very different world, and often became entwined with the colony and its convicts. They and their descendants have a very different view of the significance of the arrival of convicts in Sydney in 1788.
But the convicts had grown troublesome. Along with the sporadic theft of stores and belongings, and numerous runaways, the newly bonded community of cast-away strangers was rife with drunkenness, dirty deeds and a carefree approach to sexual relations. In early January 1789, a convict was hanged for repeated acts of armed robbery. Four others earned 100 lashes each for a three-day absence from work. Around the same time, a number of convict women were cruelly punished for the theft of clothing. Similar crimes were committed by the soldiers, who faced an even harsher fate.
Elsewhere, livestock died of disease or were struck by lightning. Unfenced cattle disappeared waywardly into the bush. In some cases, though not all, through lack of skills and motivation, convicts made poor farmers while the marines, dispirited and negligent, made reluctant overseers.
Two years in the making and Sydney’s food supplies were also dwindling. Still reliant on provisions shipped on the First Fleet, and with its storehouses ransacked by rats and rotten with damp, the settlement endured several periods of stringent rationing. Not surprisingly, as stored provisions vanished, local stocks of fish, fruit, marsupials and birdlife grew increasingly scarce from rampant over-harvesting. Violent encounters with Aboriginal people became commonplace as convicts chanced upon or stole food and implements, or unwittingly breached cultural protocols.
Making a mercy dash to Cape Town in May 1789, the Sirius returned with little more than four months’ worth of flour. With the new year dawning and the colony’s hopes fading fast, the diarist Captain-Lieutenant Watkin Tench wrote, ‘Famine besides was approaching with gigantic strides, and gloom and dejection overspread every countenance… ’2
Recognising the need for desperate measures, Governor Phillip ordered a further 280 convicts and marines to sail for Norfolk Island, to bolster its farming operations and increase output. Afterwards, all things going to plan, the Sirius would continue north to China to stock up on food and supplies. The scheme was ruined, however, when the Sirius struck a reef and broke apart on the island’s rocky shore.
- 2. Watkin Tench, A complete account of the settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales including an accurate description of the situation of the colony; of the natives; and of its natural productions, G Nicol and J Sewell, London, 1793, Chapter 5, ‘Transactions of the colony, from the beginning of the year 1790 until the end of May following’. See: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00044.pdf
This left Phillip with one remaining ship, the diminutive Supply. Dispatching her to the nearest port – Java – for help left the anxious settlement completely cut off from the outside world. Rations were cut to half-allowance, public works were abandoned and all efforts went towards the procurement of food until the Second Fleet arrived in June 1790, carrying provisions but also another thousand or more mouths to feed.
An unlikely turn of events in September 1790, arising from a dramatic confrontation between Governor Phillip and a large party of Aboriginal people on the beach at Manly, led to closer relations between colonists and Aboriginal locals. In what is now seen as a ritual ‘payback’ for the recent kidnapping of Aboriginal men, Phillip – to his and his soldiers’ great surprise – was speared without warning as he stood on the sand. Instead of retaliating, his men dragged the severely wounded Phillip to the safety of a longboat. Intriguingly, this non-fatal spearing ‘reset’ the relationship, with Aboriginal people coming frequently into town, getting to know convicts and trading with them.
FINDING ITS FEET
By 1792 the settlement was looking more secure. The colony’s farms and gardens were starting to flourish, while recognisably English-looking cottages and soldiers’ quarters and a parade ground had replaced the uncouth scattering of tents, shanties and bush tracks. Secure granaries and storehouses had lessened pilfering and, following a succession of crippling droughts, a series of angular rock pools – or tanks – were dug in the stream bed to divert the flow and fill with fresh water. The newly named Tank Stream kept early Sydney alive. There was still insufficient livestock to fertilise the arid coastal soil, but luckily for the settlement, corn, maize and vegetables thrived on the alluvial lands at the head of the harbour around Parramatta.
The British government’s gamble was paying off. Here, gradually taking shape, despite the odds, was a bucolic, almost utopian, barter-based, agricultural community. Cleared, farmed and built upon by convicts and their families, who embraced and nurtured their new homes, overseen by soldiers and guards, and ruled over by a powerful, fatherly governor, Biography: , who did his best to follow the instructions of faraway British politicians.
After their daily stint of government work, convicts were left to fend for themselves. This meant finding private work to pay for their food, clothing and accommodation.
Builders, carpenters, plasterers, blacksmiths, tailors, cobblers and others with specialist skills and tools of trade were typically in high demand, with many encouraged to start their own businesses. Those with servant skills found work in the homes of officers and officials. Those who could farm took on small plots of land, trading their crops at the government store for other necessities and luxuries.
What made Sydney a different kind of penal experience for those under sentence was a negotiated arrangement called ‘task work’. Essentially, this involved setting minimum levels of ‘public work’ needing to be carried out for the government before a convict could undertake his or her own work, for personal gain or advancement. Free time was valuable, and in colonial Sydney it was officially viewed as an indulgence for good behaviour, to be offered or withheld, although more often regarded by convicts as a right.
Unlike their counterparts in British prisons, convicts were not confined or closely guarded. Instead, a careful balance was struck between work performed for the colony’s greater good – its roads, docks, buildings, farms etc – and free time for convicts to establish and run private businesses and ply a variety of trades and lucrative services.
While in hindsight, a radical policy of granting convicts ‘free time’ in exchange for carrying out ‘set tasks’ seems humane and generous, the rationale was far from enlightened. The flipside of free time was the lack of government provisions and the need to keep public costs down. In fact, with no accommodation to count on, and only limited food rations, convicts had no choice but to work for themselves once their task work was done just to survive. This also suited colonial authorities, who were spared their obligation to provide convicts with basic necessities.
Despite its growing opportunities and relative freedoms, Sydney was still a place of exile, where misbehaviour and rebellion earned cruel and brutal punishments. However, the curious fit of privacy, free time and task work, together with a laxity of supervision gave the convict colony a surprisingly normal character, fostering social and economic participation and blurring the lines between free and unfree. For convicts, the impulse to bolster one’s wealth, security and comfort through trade and enterprise proved unstoppable.
Convicts, colonisation and impact on Aboriginal people
Professor Michael McDaniel discusses colonisation, the impact on Aboriginal people and the role of convicts in this process.
Setting to work quickly, Macquarie cancelled a long list of illegal land grants, restored civil posts, released Bligh’s allies from jail and arrested the rebel officers, ordering them to London to face charges. Little did he know that the enemies and rivals made in these early years would eventually come back to destroy him.
There were other immediate problems as well. Struggling farmers who’d lost their crops and livestock to floods and drought were now fighting plagues of caterpillars. Not only was the colony’s food supply threatened, but convicts no longer able to be fed or housed privately were being returned to government service and town, flooding into areas like The Rocks where accommodation was scarce and life was unruly.
Commencing with an official tour of the colony, Macquarie selected level and elevated flood-free sites on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River for a series of villages – the five ‘Macquarie towns’ of Castlereagh, Pitt Town, Richmond, Wilberforce and Windsor – directing convicts into government work gangs to lay out wide, well-defined streets, create town squares and parks, and erect solid public buildings: churches, markets, courts, schools. A new turnpike road was constructed between Parramatta and Sydney, bookended with ornate tollhouses to help offset costs.
Under Macquarie, a range of social and sporting customs came under fire. New laws were passed against bare-knuckle fighting, gambling and sly grog selling. More acceptable sports, like horse-racing, cricket and athletic tournaments, were allowed to continue at designated spots.
In Sydney, genteel parklands replaced the original bushland of the Side note: on the eastern side of the town stretching down to Woolloomooloo. Bold new edifices, like those of the three-winged convict hospital, loomed promisingly on the town’s eastern ridge, mirroring a soldiers’ barracks and military hospital on the opposing western ridge.
Undeterred by or indifferent to these new impositions, Aboriginal people continued to move freely about town. As well as trading and interacting with convicts and others, they continued to hold bloody tribal ‘payback’ contests in places like Hyde Park.
Similar kinds of indifference and interaction also occurred on the settlement fringes, with Aboriginal people a visible presence along the slowly expanding frontier. Many, however, maintained a fearsome resistance to the appropriation of their land. In the mid-1810s, faced with frontier warfare in Sydney’s Appin district in the south-west, soldiers (acting on Macquarie’s orders) conducted a brutal massacre of at least 14 Aboriginal men, women and children.
Though this effectively ended armed Aboriginal resistance in Sydney, a similar story of violent dispossession unfolded across the state in the following decades, as convicts formed the vanguard of colonial expansion into the tribal lands of more Aboriginal groups.
BUSH TRACKS TO BOULEVARDS
Police constables and soldiers, patrolling newly defined curfew areas, strode along freshly paved footpaths, while town squares were prettified with monuments and masonry. Streets were renamed and re-levelled, while formerly roving pigs, poultry and goats were banned from view behind lofty walls and fences. Out on the fringes, stylish villas and neat cottages in soon-to-be fashionable zones to the south and east snubbed the ‘untamed’ enclaves of The Rocks and Cockle Bay, where the far-from-gentrified convicts and ex-convicts lived, loved and socialised.
Further afield, horizons were expanding. Having just extended its footprint beyond the once impassable Blue Mountains and bristling with commerce and shipping – whale oil, cedar, seal skins and sandalwood – the garrison outpost of Sydney was eager to shed its penal past. Many others, particularly Macquarie’s superiors in London, worried that the colony was growing up too fast, ‘taking on a character more colonial than should belong to a gaol’.
By 1815, Macquarie’s Sydney was a thriving port town, fed by large, productive farms on the Cumberland Plain, with expanding local industries, employing an ever-growing population of current and ex-convict colonists – most of whom now called the place home. Following years of declining convict arrivals, a laxity in supervision, along with wide-ranging incentives and opportunities to prosper, a growing commercial self-confidence, spurred by the unlocking of farming lands to the west, had given the colony hope. Blessed with good health and an agreeable climate, townsfolk saw the regular arrival of newborn babies as cause for celebration. In Lord Bathurst’s words, the colony might become ‘at no distant period a valuable possession of the crown’.
For the new governor, however, progress boiled down to building and infrastructure. In his mind, bold and expensive plans for a self-confident city were taking shape. Town squares and boulevards would soon replace the old bush tracks.