The First Fleet: The Real Story

July 7, 2011 - 11:10 am No Comments

The First Fleet: The Real Story

Alan Frost

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Australians have been led to believe for many decades that The First Fleet’s primary aim was to cleanse British society of its convict population by dumping it on these shores. Furthermore, it was believed the voyage itself was poorly planned and haphazardly equipped.

Emeritus Professor of History at La Trobe University, Alan Frost, has recently published evidence to the contrary. In The First Fleet: The Real Story, Frost proves the venture was meticulously planned, well-provisioned, and, considering the fact that this was a long voyage of eight months and one week, amazingly safe. More than 1400 people were placed in Captain Arthur Phillip’s care and by the time they reached Botany Bay, there were only 32 deaths since leaving England. Twenty male convicts, three females and five of the children of convicts were amongst those who perished. This evidence belies the idea of any  on board being expendable, but rather  indicates that special care was taken to preserve the lives of all.

Phillip, who became the first Governor of the colony, was making plans for it some months before he set sail. Perhaps the most time-consuming of his preparations was in ensuring the colony would be run under civil rather than military law. He provided for the good health and welfare of the prisoners who were to board his ships so that when they were removed from the filth, squalor and disease of the British gaols, they were bathed, given clean clothes, fed nutritious food for up to three months before the voyage as well as during it, and provided with the services of a doctor to treat their ailments. Hardly the effort required of someone who was meant merely to dump troublemakers on the other side of the world.

Tellingly, Phillip often referred to his charges in official documents not as “convicts” but, with the marines and soldiers,  as “colonists”. This indicates the true intentions of the British government for imperial expansion. The English King, George 111, and Prime Minister William Pitt (who counted amongst his friends the reformer William Wilberforce) were also aware of the possibilities of trade benefits in establishing a colony so far from home.

Arrived at Botany Bay, Phillip quickly determined that it was unsuitable for a large settlement, so investigated nearby Port Jackson and established the colony there, by the waters of Sydney Cove. After landing his charges and unloading the stores and stock, Phillip formally established his colony on 7 February 1788. He assembled all the colonists on the west side of the cove, the convicts sitting in the middle, the marines forming an encircling guard. He then addressed them, praising those who had behaved well on the voyage and exhorting them to make new lives for themselves in this new place. Small plots of land were given to the convicts which they could work in their free time as an inducement to reforming lives of drunkenness, indolence and lawlessness.

Despite the  several “teething problems” of establishing a new colony, and over a year of an el nino-induced drought in 1790-91, Phillip left Sydney at the end of  1792 as it was beginning to flourish, dutifully fulfilling the carefully laid plans of the Pitt administration.

The First Fleet: The Real Story is an exciting re-assessment of the origins of the British colony in Terra Australis. The fact that it barely mentions the Indigenous people who were a very real presence in Phillip’s Antipodean world,  does present  a problem, however. For this, dear Reader, I suggest you go to Inga Clendinnen’s marvellous history, Dancing WIth Strangers.

But rather than maintaining the imagery of our ancestors as human refuse marooned on the other side of the world, we now have a brighter picture of a citizenry who expiated their social sins to build a better society.

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