The Convict Settlement At Sydney 1788-1800

Botany Bay. The reports brought home by Captain Cook completely

changed the beliefs current in those days with regard to Australia. From

the time of Dampier it had been supposed that the whole of this

continent must be the same flat and miserable desert as the part he

described. Cook's account, on the other hand, represented the eastern

coast as a country full of beauty and promise. Now, it so happened that,

shortly a
ter Cook's return, the English nation had to deal with a great

difficulty in regard to its criminal population. In 1776 the United

States declared their independence, and the English then found they

could no longer send their convicts over to Virginia, as they had

formerly done. In a short time the gaols of England were crowded with

felons. It became necessary to select a new place of transportation;

and, just as this difficulty arose, Captain Cook's voyages called

attention to a land in every way suited for such a purpose, both by

reason of its fertility and of its great distance. Viscount Sydney,

therefore, determined to send out a party to Botany Bay, in order to

found a convict settlement there; and in May, 1787, a fleet was ready to

sail. It consisted of the Sirius war-ship, its tender the Supply,

together with six transports for the convicts, and three ships for

carrying the stores. Of the convicts, five hundred and fifty were men

and two hundred and twenty were women. To guard these, there were on

board two hundred soldiers. Captain Phillip was appointed Governor of

the colony, Captain Hunter was second in command, and Mr. Collins went

out as judge-advocate, to preside in the military courts, which it was

intended to establish for the administration of justice. On the 18th,

19th, and 20th of January, 1788, the vessels arrived, one after another,

in Botany Bay, after a voyage of eight months, during which many of the

convicts had died from diseases brought on by so long a confinement.

Port Jackson. As soon as the ships had anchored in Botany Bay,

convicts were landed and commenced to clear the timber from a portion of

the land; but a day or two was sufficient to show the unsuitability of

Botany Bay for such a settlement. Its waters were so shallow that the

ships could not enter it properly, and had to lie near the Heads, where

the great waves of the Pacific rolled in on them by night and day.

Governor Phillip, therefore, took three boats, and sailed out to search

for some more convenient harbour. As he passed along the coast he turned

to examine the opening which Captain Cook had called Port Jackson, and

soon found himself in a winding channel of water, with great cliffs

frowning overhead. All at once a magnificent prospect opened on his

eyes. A harbour, which is, perhaps, the most beautiful and perfect in

the world, stretched before him far to the west, till it was lost on the

distant horizon. It seemed a vast maze of winding waters, dotted here

and there with lovely islets; its shores thickly wooded down to the

strips of golden sand which lined the most charming little bays; and its

broad sheets of rippling waters bordered by lines of dusky foliage. The

scene has always been one of surpassing loveliness; but to those who

filled the first boats that ever threw the foam from its surface, who

felt themselves the objects of breathless attention to groups of natives

who stood gazing here and there from the projecting rocks, it must have

had an enchanting effect. To Captain Phillip himself, whose mind had

been filled with anxiety and despondency as to the future prospects of

his charge, it opened out like the vision of a world of new hope and


Three days were spent in examining portions of this spacious harbour,

and in exploring a few of its innumerable bays. Captain Phillip

selected, as the place most suitable for the settlement, a small inlet,

which, in honour of the Minister of State, he called Sydney Cove. It was

so deep as to allow vessels to approach to within a yard or two of the

shore, thus avoiding the necessity of spending time and money in

building wharves or piers. After a few days the fleet was brought round

and lay at anchor in this little cove which is now the crowded Circular

Quay. The convicts were landed, and commenced to clear away the trees on

the banks of a small stream which stole silently through a very dense

wood. When an open space had been obtained, a flagstaff was erected near

the present battery on Dawe's Point; the soldiers fired three volleys,

and the Governor read his commission to the assembled company. Then

began a scene of noise and bustle. From dawn to sunset, nothing could be

heard but the sound of axes, hammers, and saws, with the crash of trees

and the shouts of the convict overseers. They lost no time in preparing

their habitations on shore; for the confinement of the overcrowded ships

had become intolerably hateful.

Early Sufferings. More than a third of their number were ill with

scurvy and other diseases--sixty-six lay in the little hospital which

had been set up, and many of them never recovered. Those who were well

enough to work began to clear the land for cultivation; but so soon as

everything was ready for the ploughing to begin, the amazing fact was

discovered that no one knew anything of agriculture; and had it not been

that Governor Phillip had with him a servant who had been for a time on

a farm, their labour would have been of little avail. As it was, the

cultivation was of the rudest kind; one man, even if he had been a

highly experienced person, could do very little to instruct so many. The

officers and soldiers were smart enough on parade, but they were useless

on a farm; the convicts, instead of trying to learn, expended all their

ingenuity in picking each other's pockets, or in robbing the stores.

They would do no work unless an armed soldier was standing behind them,

and if he turned away for a moment, they would deliberately destroy the

farm implements in their charge, hide them in the sand or throw them

into the water. Thus, only a trifling amount of food was obtained from

the soil; the provisions they had brought with them were nearly

finished, and when the news came that the Guardian transport, on which

they were depending for fresh supplies, had struck on an iceberg and had

been lost, the little community was filled with the deepest dismay. Soon

after, a ship arrived with a number of fresh convicts, but no

provisions; in great haste the Sirius was sent to the Cape of Good

Hope, and the Supply to Batavia; these vessels brought back as much as

they could get, but it was all used in a month or two. Starvation now

lay before the settlement; every one, including the officers and the

Governor himself, was put on the lowest rations which could keep the

life in a man's body, and yet there was not enough of food, even at

this miserable rate, to last for any length of time. Numbers died of

starvation; the Governor stopped all the works, as the men were too weak

to continue them. The sheep and cattle which they had brought with so

much trouble to become the origin of flocks and herds were all killed

for food, with the exception of two or three which had escaped to the

woods and had been lost from sight.

Norfolk Island. Under these circumstances, Governor Phillip sent two

hundred convicts, with about seventy soldiers, to Norfolk Island, where

there was a moderate chance of their being able to support themselves;

for, immediately after his arrival in New South Wales, he had sent

Lieutenant King to take possession of that island, of whose beauty and

fertility Captain Cook had spoken very highly. Twenty-seven convicts and

soldiers had gone along with King, and had cleared away the timber from

the rich brown soil. They had little trouble in raising ample crops, and

were now in the midst of plenty, which their less fortunate companions

came to share. But the Sirius, in which they had been carried over,

was wrecked on a coral reef near the island before she could return, and

with her was lost a considerable quantity of provisions.

The Second Fleet. The prospects of the colony at Sydney had grown

very black, when a store-ship suddenly appeared off the Heads. Great was

the rejoicing at first; but when a storm arose and drove the vessel

northward among the reefs of Broken Bay, their exultation was changed to

a painful suspense. For some hours her fate was doubtful; but, to the

intense relief of the expectant people on shore, she managed to make

the port and land her supplies. Shortly after, two other store-ships

arrived, and the community was never again so badly in want of

provisions. Matters were growing cheerful, when a fresh gloom was caused

by the arrival of a fleet filled to overflowing with sick and dying

convicts. Seventeen hundred had been embarked, but of these two hundred

had died on the way, and their bodies had been thrown overboard. Several

hundreds were in the last stages of emaciation and exhaustion; scarcely

one of the whole fifteen hundred who landed was fit for a day's work.

This brought fresh misery and trouble, and the deaths were of appalling


Escape of Prisoners. Many of the convicts sought to escape from

their sufferings by running away; some seized the boats in the harbour

and tried to sail for the Dutch colony in Java; others hid themselves

in the woods, and either perished or else returned, after weeks of

starvation, to give themselves up to the authorities. In 1791 a band of

between forty and fifty set out to walk to China, and penetrated a few

miles into the bush, where their bleached and whitened skeletons some

years after told their fate.

Departure of Governor Phillip. Amid these cares and trials the

health of Governor Phillip fairly broke down, and, in 1792, forced him

to resign. He was a man of energy and decision; prompt and skilful, yet

humane and just in his character; his face, though pinched and pale with

ill-health, had a sweet and benevolent expression; no better man could

have been selected to fill the difficult position he held with so much

credit to himself. He received a handsome pension from the British

Government, and retired to spend his life in English society. Major

Grose and Captain Patterson took charge of the colony for the next three

years; but in 1795 Captain Hunter, who, after the loss of his ship, the

Sirius, had returned to England, arrived in Sydney to occupy the

position of Governor.

Governor Hunter. By this time affairs had passed their crisis, and

were beginning to be favourable. About sixty convicts, whose sentences

had expired, had received grants of land, and, now that they were

working for themselves, had become successful farmers. Governor Hunter

brought out a number of free settlers, to whom he gave land near the

Hawkesbury; and, after a time, more than six thousand acres were covered

with crops of wheat and maize. There was now no fear of famine, and the

settlement grew to be comfortable in most respects. Unfortunately, the

more recent attempts to import cattle with which to stock the farms had

proved more or less unsuccessful; so that the discovery of a fine herd

of sixty wandering through the meadows of the Hawkesbury was hailed with

great delight. These were the descendants of the cattle which had been

lost from Governor Phillip's herd some years before.

State of the Settlement. Twelve years after the foundation of

the colony, its population amounted to between six and seven thousand

persons. These were all settled near Sydney, which was a straggling town

with one main street 200 feet wide, running up the valley from Sydney

Cove, while on the slopes at either side the huts of the convicts were

stationed far apart and each in a fenced-in plot of ground. On the

little hills overlooking the cove, a number of big, bare, stone

buildings were the Government quarters and barracks for the soldiers.

Attempts had been made to penetrate to the west, though without success.

The rugged chain of the Blue Mountains was an impassable barrier.

Seventy miles north of Sydney a fine river--the Hunter--had been

discovered by Lieutenant Shortland while in pursuit of some runaway

convicts who had stolen a boat. Signs of coal having been seen near

its mouth, convicts were sent up to open mines, and, these proving

successful, the town of Newcastle rapidly formed. In 1800 Governor

Hunter returned to England on business, intending to come out again; but

he was appointed to the command of a war-ship, and Lieutenant King was

sent out to take his place.