The First Fleet’s brig Supply was the first to arrive at Botany Bay, on 18 January 1788. The following day the Alexander, Scarborough and Friendship arrived followed by the Sirius and the rest of the First Fleet the day after. On 21 January, Phillip proceeded to Port Jackson to find a better site for settlement. Numerous landings were made in Port Jackson until Sydney Cove was found and assessed to be the best site. The party probably camped there over night, returning to Botany Bay the following morning. On his return, Governor Phillip ordered that the whole fleet sail for Port Jackson the next day, the 24th of January. However, the wind was foul the next day and only the Supply sailed, setting anchor in Sydney Cove on the evening of the 25th. Early on the 26th of January the Marines and convicts were taken ashore in Supply’s boats.
That afternoon a small ceremony was held, involving Phillip, a few key officers and marines and some exhausted convicts who had spent the day clearing a campsite from the sandy bush. The British flag was run up a makeshift flagpole and toasts were made to the King and the success of the new settlement, and the marines fired four volleys.
The women had to wait until the 6th of February before they were brought ashore. Bowes described the occasion in some detail:
At five o’clock this morning, all things were got in order for landing the whole of the women, and 3 of the ships longboats came alongside us to receive them; previous to their quitting the ship, a strict search was made to try if any of the many things which they had stolen on board could be found, but their artifice eluded the most strict search, and at six o’clock p.m. we had the long wished for pleasure of seeing the last of them leave the ship. They were dressed in general very clean, and some few amongst them might be said to be well dressed. The men convicts got to them very soon after they landed, and it is beyond my abilities to give a just description of the scene of debauchery and riot that ensued during the night. They had not been landed more than an hour, before they had all got their tents pitched or anything in order to receive them, but there came on the most violent storm of thunder lightening and rain I ever saw. The lightening was incessant during the whole night and I never heard it rain faster. About 12 o’clock in the night one severe flash of lightning struck a very large tree in the centre of the Camp, under which some places were constructed to keep the sheep and hogs in. It split the tree from top to bottom, killed five sheep belonging to Major Ross, and a pig of one of the Lieutenants. The severity of the lightening this and the two preceding nights leaves no room to doubt but many of the trees which appear burnt up to the tops of them were the effect of lightning. The sailors in our ship requested to have some grog to make merry with upon the women quitting the ship, indeed the Captain himself had no small reason to rejoice upon their being all safely landed and given into the care of the Governor, as he was under the penalty of £40 for every convict that was missing. For which reason he complied with the sailor’s request, and about the time they began to be elevated the tempest came on. The scene which presented itself at this time and during the greater part of the night beggars every description.
Some swearing, others quarrelling, others singing – not in the least regarding the tempest, though so violent that the thunder shook the ship exceeded anything I ever before had a conception of. I never before experienced so uncomfortable a night, expecting every moment the ship would be struck with the lightening. The sailors almost all drunk, and incapable of rendering much assistance had an accident happened and the heat was almost suffocating.[i]
A great deal has been written about the challenges faced by the first settlement at Port Jackson. My purpose here is to reflect primarily on what I have been able to discover about my ancestors, and those most closely connected with them. Like the vast bulk of convicts they will have struggled with the strange climate and the restricted diet; they will have wondered about the new plants and animals around them, and probably worried about the intentions of the local inhabitants, the Eora.
There was a great deal of work to do to provide the most basic foundations for the settlement. Settlers and convicts were engaged in clearing the ground, erecting tents and building huts in the marine and convict encampments; constructing public amenities such as the commissary and hospital as well as the slightly grander governor’s house; unloading provisions; clearing ground for the public farm and even erecting an observatory. Work was also required to repair and refit the fleet’s ships.
By July 1788, Lieutenant Henry Waterhouse could write to his father:
The Town now begins to cut a figure a number of Wooden Houses are built & the Governors & Lieut Governors Stone Houses are almost built likewise the Hospital and Store houses. At a little distance from the Town there is a farm for the Cultivation of Seed & Cattle for the Publick, there is a number of private Farms & Gardens about there is likewise a brick field & kiln at which some Thousands of excellent Bricks have been made …[ii]
William Saltmarsh’s brushes with the law
William Saltmarsh was soon working as a cooper in the commissary store and later, at the wharf. As cooper he was probably making barrels to store all manner of goods, including rum. On 11 August 1788 William was accused of stealing spirits belonging to Mr Zachariah Clark and of being found drunk. Collins and Alt sat as a bench of magistrates to hear the charge. William Broughton alleged that on the 9th of August he had noticed a strong smell of rum in the store and had found Saltmarsh very drunk. In his defense, William Saltmarsh said that he had put water into an empty pipe of Rio Spirits on the 7th of August and drunk it two days later. He was found guilty and sentenced to seventy lashes![iii] The early floggings at Sydney Cove were described as being ‘at the cart’s tail’, with the recipient probably tied to a cartwheel or the raised back of a cart.[iv] The lash was a cat-o’-nine-tails, with nine knotted leather strands at the end of a short whip. Painful indeed.
William’s luck improved the following year when, on 6 June 1789 he was credited with capturing the escaped convict known as Black Caesar. Apparently Caesar was raiding the settlement for food when William caught him around midnight. Tried at Deptford, in Kent, on 17 March 1786, for stealing cash valued at 240 shillings, John Caesar had been sentenced to seven years transportation and, like William, had sailed aboard the Alexander. Collins described Caesar as ‘an incorrigibly stubborn black’[v] and recorded:
Caesar, being closely attended to, was at length apprehended and secured. This man was always reputed the hardest-working convict in the country; his frame was muscular and well calculated for hard labour; but in his intellects he did not very widely differ from a brute; his appetite was ravenous, for he could in any one day devour the full ration for two days. To gratify his appetite he was compelled to steal from others, and all his thefts were directed to that purpose. He was such a wretch, and so indifferent about meeting death that he declared, while in confinement, that if he should be hanged he would create a laugh before he was turned off, by playing off some trick upon the executioner.[vi]
Recognised as Australia’s first bushranger, Caesar was to abscond a number of times, finally being caught and fatally shot in 1796.
Four months after capturing Caesar, William was back on the other side of the law. This time he was accused of stealing oars form Lieutenant Ralph Clark’s boat. Was he planning his own escape? Or perhaps he fancied some fresh fish to add to the meagre rations? In any event, he paid dearly, facing the magistrates on 13 October and sentenced to seventy lashes!
Two months later William attended a far happier event – the baptism of his daughter Ann. Born to convict Elizabeth Holligan, Ann was baptised at St Phillips on 20 December 1789. Elizabeth had sailed to the colony on board the Prince of Wales. A few years older than William, Elizabeth was a Londoner and had faced trial at the Old Bailey on 18 April 1787 where she was found guilty of stealing six pairs of worsted stockings valued at eight shillings. For this, she was sentenced to seven years transportation.
Very little is known about William and Elizabeth’s relationship. On 6 March 1790 Elizabeth and Ann sailed to Norfolk Island with some 200 convicts and two companies of marines as part of a strategy to reduce the pressure on supplies at Sydney Cove. Although William was to follow some months later, they seem not to have re-connected as a family.[vii]
A return of male convicts in July 1790 listed only three coopers at Sydney Cove.[viii] Perhaps such a scarcity meant that William had been able to continue performing his trade notwithstanding his transgressions.[ix] However, the following month, William was sent to the fledgling settlement on Norfolk Island. It is not clear from the records why William was sent, whether there was some intention for him to reunite with Elizabeth and Ann, whether his skills were needed there, or perhaps his earlier transgressions now counted against him? Perhaps his transfer was simply part of a broader strategy to move some of the hungry mouths of Sydney Cove to the more sparsely populated island.
Stephen Martin at Sydney Cove
Stephen Martin’s experience of Sydney Cove was not too dissimilar from William’s. He found himself on the wrong side of the lash on two occasions. In February 1789 Captain Collins dealt summarily with Stephen and another convict for neglecting their work and ordered that each receive twenty-five lashes. Nine months later, Stephen was charged, together with John Russell, with stealing a pair of shoes and buckles, a loaf of bread and piece of beef. The pair faced a hearing before the Justice of Peace at Rosehill on 28 November 1789 and was sentenced ‘to repay each two pounds of flour, one pound a week, and Martin to receive fifty lashes’.[x]
Stephen Martin was sent to Norfolk Island, on board the Sirius, at the same time as Elizabeth and Ann Holligan. The Sirius was then to sail on to Canton for provisions. However, the weather was unkind and on 19 March 1790, just a few days after the convicts and marines disembarked, the Sirius was broken up upon the reef, resulting in the loss of many personal goods and provisions.
[i] Bowes Smyth, Arthur, c1790, A Journal of a Voyage from Portsmouth to New South Wales and China in the Lady Penrhyn, transcript published by State Library of New South Wales (edited for punctuation and full words)
[ii] Henry Waterhouse, Letter to William Waterhouse, 11 July 1788, State Library of New South Wales, http://www2.sl.nsw.gov.au/archive/discover_collections/history_nation/terra_australis/letters/waterhouse/index.html
[iii] John Cobley, 1962, Sydney Cove, 1788, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, p205
[iv] Egan, 1999, Buried Alive: Sydney 1788-92, Eyewitness accounts of the making of a nation, Allen and Unwin, St Leonard’s, New South Wales, p105
[v] Tim Flannery, 1999, The Birth of Sydney, Text Publishing, Melbourne, p93
[vi] Tim Flannery, p94
[vii] Elizabeth and Ann only remained on the island for three years before returning to Sydney aboard the Chesterfield in 1793.
[viii] Egan, p183
[ix] Frederick Watson & Australia, Parliament Library Committee, 1914, Letter from Arthur Phillip to Grenville, Annexure: General Return of Male Convicts, Sydney, 23 July 1790, Historical Records of Australia, Volume 1
[x] Irene Schaffer, 1985, From Convicts to Settlers, Tasmania, pp48-49