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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Arthur Phillip: 1788. The Foundation Year

by Ann Moyal

William Bradley, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1 March 1788

William Bradley, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1 March 1788

It was Friday 18 January 1788 that Captain Arthur Phillip, Commodore of the First Fleet, reached Botany Bay, its precise location and name etched upon the map in 1770 by its discovery by Captain Cook. Commissioned by the British Admiralty in October 1787, the Fleet, composed of two King’s ships, HMS Sirius and HMS Supply, six hired transports, and three store ships, set sail from Britain on 13 May 1787 to found a penal colony in Australia. It bore a total company of approximately 1500 voyagers composed of naval and marine officers, ships’ surgeons, marines, crew, about 775 men and women convicts and 50 children, 20 having been added on the journey. Calling to replenish supplies at Rio de Janeiro and Cape Colony, the Fleet crossed some 15,000 miles (24,140 kilometers) of distant and imperfectly explored ocean, the Southern Ocean itself the largest stretch of unbroken water in the world, in a unique journey of six months and one week, ‘a voyage which, before it was undertaken (as one of the leaders noted) ‘the mind hardly dared venture to contemplate’.[1] The safe arrival of the Fleet proved a triumph of planning and navigation. A contemporary correlation, Phillip’s biographer, Michael Pembroke, suggests, would be to send a large company of unwilling individuals to settle on the moon.

Informed by Cook’s description, Phillip spent several days examining Botany Bay but, unhappy with its resources and the lack of convenient water, he set out with several officers on Monday 21 January 1788, travelling by cutter twenty miles north to enter Port Jackson (named but not visited by Cook). There, in early afternoon, they were astonished to find ‘the finest harbour in the world’, in which, wrote Phillip, ‘a thousand sail of the line may ride in the most perfect security’.[2] Examining the many bays that studded the harbour, Phillip settled for one he would name ‘Sydney Cove’ which possessed a freshwater spring of water at its head flowing into the cove, and was positioned where the ships could anchor close to the shore. After two more days examining the harbour landscape, Phillip returned to Botany Bay and led his Fleet into Sydney Harbour aboard the Supply on Friday 25 January. By nightfall the eleven ships, the entire First Fleet, was safely assembled at Port Jackson. ‘[H]ow good the Almighty is to us’, exclaimed Lieutenant Ralph Clark on the transport, Friendship.[3] It fell, however, to marine officer Captain Watkin Tench, reputedly ‘the most cultivated mind in the young settlement on Sydney Cove’, to bring the sweeping span of Sydney Harbor to view.[4] ‘Our passage to Port Jackson’, he wrote, ‘took up but few hours… Having passed between the capes which form its entrance, we found ourselves in a port superior, in extent and excellency, to all we had seen before. We continued to run up the harbor about four miles, in a westerly direction, enjoying the luxuriant prospect of its shores, covered with trees to the water’s edge, among which many of the Indians [Aborigines] were frequently seen, till we arrived at a small snug cove on the southern side, on whose banks the plan of our operations was destined to commence’.[5]

On the morning of Saturday, 26th January, the colours were displayed, the British flag flown, and possession of the country taken formally in the name of King George III. ‘At sun-set’, George Worgan, surgeon aboard the Sirius, reported, ‘the Governor, the principal officers of the settlement, and many of the private soldiers, drank His Majesty’s health & success to the new colony’.[6] No convict, however, set foot on Australian land that day and, it should be recorded in light of the historical importance attached to 26 January as a commemorative national date, that, neither the large company of male convicts destined to develop the colony, nor any women or children were present at the inaugural ceremony on that landmark day.

Phillip’s ideas at once framed and shaped the settlement. A distinguished British naval commander of diverse international experience, an investigative spy for Britain, and a gentleman farmer on his property in Hampshire, he was just short of fifty years old. A practical man of immense conceptual and spiritual energy, Governor Phillip saw his immediate decisions as a matter of urgency. Many of the convicts had already spent years in jail or on the hulks on the river Thames and he was anxious to begin the process of founding the colony. His own assiduous planning for the nourishment of his charges on the journey – supplementing the convicts’ diet with fresh food at Rio and the Cape of Good Hope and his insistence on their medical attention and the cleanliness of their berths and clothes – meant that this motley company of miscreants reached Australia in remarkably good health. As Principal Surgeon, John White, aboard the transport Charlotte, a man deeply committed to the health and ‘cheerfulness’ of the convicts in the Fleet, recorded in his Journal with relief: ‘To see all the ships safe in their destined port, without ever having, by any accident, been one hour separated; and all the people in as good health as could be expected or hoped for, after so long a voyage, was a sight truly pleasing, and at which every heart must rejoice’.[7]

The first week on land was packed with action. On 27 January, sailors from the Sirius, together with a body of marines and a number of male convicts were landed at Sydney Cove to fell timber and clear the ground, the once quiet scene humming with the sounds of falling timber and the erecting of tents. The remaining large company of male convicts was disembarked from the transports over the following days. ‘Confusion quickly gave way to system’, Tench observed. Phillip himself structured the ordering of the camp. His own tent as Governor and those of his attendant staff, the Officer of the Commissary, Lieutenant George Johnston; his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Arthur Miller, and his personal servant, Henry Dodd, were set on the east side of the Cadigal stream (the spring of water named by the local tribe and known subsequently as the Tank Stream) and the tents of the male convicts on the west. He at once ensured that the trees and bush were left uncut on both sides of the stream providing nine metres of undergrowth and greenery and requiring that the stream at all times be kept free of debris. For many weeks the landed party camped in tents and marquees (ten male convicts to a tent) and high priority was given to building strong permanent storehouses for the settlement’s provisions. In this new country they sat under roofs of rough thatch. The Governor’s imported portable house was placed in position on 29 January and on the 30th the transports’ long boats landed the livestock – one bull, five cows, one bull calf, one stallion, three mares, three colts, and a number of ewes and hogs and goats from the Cape of Good Hope – on the eastern point of the cove. A ragged shack serving as the hospital, with separate spaces for convicts and soldiers, was also laid out within days on the western side. ‘Every detail, no matter how large and small’, one observer noted, ‘passed under Phillip’s watchful eye’.

In planning the expedition Phillip had particularly asked for trained men among the convicts. But in that mood of prevailing indifference that seemed to engulf his masters at home, there were only twelve carpenters in the convoy which, instead, held many male convicts described as ‘infirm’, ‘aged’ and ‘untrained’, and few – in view of the proposed agricultural development of the settlement – who knew anything of husbandry. Seamen with technical and building skills were at once commandeered. Aware of the need to control his convict community, Phillip had, on 26 January, immediately commissioned Midshipman Henry Brewer, a middle-aged officer who had served him as secretary on the Europe, as his trustworthy Provost-Marshal.

The marines were an essential presence in the camp. In October 1787, the Admiralty had called for a corps of volunteers from the Corps of Marines to transport the convicts to Botany Bay and maintain good order and regularity among them in the settlement. It proved surprising that, in light of the negative public view held in Britain of ‘Botany Bay’ as a rough ‘upside world’, a country full of oddities and perversities across the globe, that the call for volunteers was oversubscribed and a ballot for the 192 places was called, the marines seeing the selection both as an honour and a route for advancement. Those chosen were given the option of discharge after three years and the chance to settle on farm land or return to England. Several marines embarked with a wife and child. Major Robert Ross, the newly appointed commander of the New South Wales Marine Corps and as Lieutenant-Governor came with his wife and teenage son. Arrogant, obstructive and demanding, he was to prove a combative and hostile associate for Phillip.

Significantly, eleven days went by before the female convicts were landed at Sydney Cove. The wives of the marines were first embarked on 28 January. At last, on Wednesday, 6 February, a day ripening to blazing heat, the company of convict women and the children prepared to go ashore. ‘At 5 o’Clock this morng.’, surgeon Arthur Bowes Smyth recorded in his Journal, ‘all things were got in order for landing the whole of the women & 3 of the Ships Long Boats came alongside us to receive them’. ‘They were dressed in general very clean &some few amongst them might be sd. to be well dress’d’.[8] Unfortunately those long waiting days of frustration for the women, of anxiety mixed with high expectation, remain unrecorded as the female convicts lacked both the education and the materials to keep personal records. They were assigned places in the tents on the east side, but Phillip, aware of the likely passions awaiting the mixing of the sexes, gave orders that five of the women who had distinguished themselves from the others for their behaviour during the voyage, were to be landed separately and placed in a tent near his own. The general camp for women convicts, set to the north of the Governor’s house, was also separated from an encampment of male convicts by the homes of the parson Rev. Richard Johnson and the Judge Advocate, David Collins. Altogether some 775 convicts were landed, 180 of whom were women.

Phillip’s surmise on the meeting of the sexes proved exact. The story of debauchery, rioting, and orgy mixed with the violent storm of lightening and pouring rain that erupted above the settlement that early 6 February night would colour Australian history for many years, works such as Robert Hughes, The Fatal Shore, and many more, lending enduring popular legacy to the picture.[9] Watkin Tench’s contemporary account struck a more sober and realistic note. ‘While they were on board ship, the two sexes had been kept most rigorously apart’, he wrote, ‘but, when landed, their separation became impractical, and would have been, perhaps, wrong. Licentiousness was the unavoidable consequence’.[10]

On the following morning, 7 February, with the colours flying and the military band playing, the whole company of the colony, besides those needed on the ships, was assembled in the Parade Ground – the convicts forming a circle seated on the ground, the marines behind them – to hear the Governor and Commander in Chief formally inaugurate the government of the new colony. ‘(A) camp table was fixt before them (Bowes Smyth described the singular scene) & 2 red leather Cases laid thereon, containing the Commissions etc. wh. were open’d & unsealed in the Sight of All present & read by the Judge Advocate’.[11] Phillip’s authority was plainly defined in his Commission and in the Act of Parliament establishing the Colony, and in the Letters Patent which constituted the Courts of Law, a Civil and a Criminal Court in this case, while the role of Judge Advocate accorded to Marine Captain David Collins in London before sailing, placed Collins, with little legal training behind him, as the officer responsible, under the Governor, for the legal establishment and conduct of the colony.

Phillip had formed his own working hypothesis of the settlement he wished to establish on the Fleet’s outward journey and he set down his ideas and projections on 7 February as foundation principles. Phillip’s Journal is fragmentary but his messages to the convicts that day, gathered from the Journal writings of key members of his team, at once made clear that a functioning society would need to foster a sense of mutual responsibility. A remote colony as ‘a dumping ground’ was never envisaged. Rather the colony should be self-respecting and adult in its public life. Addressing them, Phillip stressed that they, the assembled convicts, had been told of the nature of the laws and his authority, and, alert to their generally good behaviour on the ocean journey, he knew there were many among them who ‘will make use of the great indulgence and laxity their country had offered’. But there were also, he added, many ‘who are innate villains, and people of the most abandoned principles’. ‘To punish these’, Phillip indicated, ‘shall be my constant care, and in this duty I ever will be indefatigable, however distress’g it may be to my feelings’.[12] He exhorted them, however, to be honest amongst themselves, to forget habits of vice and indolence, and to contribute to the building of a community and of a new British colony. His tone was firm but reasoned. ‘[T]heir labour’, he assured the men convicts, ‘wd not be equal to that of an husbandman in England; who has a Wife & family to provide for. They wd. never be work’d beyond their Abilities’. But theft of property and livestock would carry the heaviest punishment.[13] ‘Lenity’, as Phillip called it, and the equal sharing of provisions, demanded both a reciprocal collaboration and the necessity of unequivocal discipline.

Unprecedented in its intent and scope, Phillip’s was a fearless speech and aimed at moral control. It also rested on absolute authority. In preparing himself for the task of Governor and Commander in Chief he accepted that the final responsibility for punishment and discipline within the colony would be his. Several of the naval officers, inheritors of the late days of the Enlightenment and fashioned by ideas of common humanity, were responsive to the Governor’s vision. But it was not a view shared by the marine officers. They believed that the colony should be run on traditional lines as a ‘garrison-commonwealth’. They feared Phillip’s single authority. ‘This man’, as one put it, ‘will be everything himself.’ Even the cultured Tench reflected in his Journal, ‘Nor have the Government been more backward in arming Mr. Phillip with plenitude of power’.[14]

Shored up by these foundation principles, the stores of the settlement were issued equally (with the exception of spirits) to convicts, marines and officers, with two thirds of the weekly male rations served to the female convicts. ‘(C)ould I possibly have imagined’, Lieutenant-Governor Major Ross is said famously to have exclaimed, ‘that I was to be served with, for instance, no more butter than any of the convicts….I most certainly would not have left England’.15 Construction moved briskly forward. The observatory of the scientifically trained young astronomer, Marine Lieutenant William Dawes, was erected by a small team of marines at a distance from the encampment on the edge of the west point of the cove that now bears his name, set up with the telescopes and astronomical instruments sent out by the Board of Longitude to enable Dawes to make observations of a comet expected in the southern hemisphere in 1788. A Governor’s garden was planted in front of Phillip’s house; the Surveyor-General, Augustus Alt, oversaw the construction of a wharf for landing stores, a Bakehouse was established near the hospital, and brick kilns, destined to become a productive centre of output for the colony, stood a mile north of the settlement.

With all his rational and humanitarian approaches, Phillip would be quickly tested. On 11 February, only four days after commissioning the two Courts of Justice, the Criminal Court was called into service under the Judge Advocate, assisted by three naval officers and three officers from the Marines. The first punishments meted out were 150 lashes for a convict who had struck a marine, a second was convicted for stealing a biscuit from another convict and given a week’s confinement on a rocky island (perhaps ‘Pinchgut’, later Fort Denison), while a third, sentenced for stealing a plank, was pardoned by Phillip.

Worse was to come. On 27 February four convicts came before the Criminal Court for stealing large quantities of provisions from the stores and were condemned to death. Presenting for their punishment on 28 February, one, Thomas Barret, was hanged going forth as Tench declared ‘with that hardy spirit, which too often is found in the worst and most abandoned class of men’.[15] The other two were ‘within an inch of the tree’ when they received the Governor’s pardon. Two more were banished ‘to some uninhabitable place’ (often one of the islands in the harbour used for periods of privation such as ‘Pinchgut’, later Fort Denison). A few days on, convict John Freeman was convicted and sentenced to hang for stealing from another convict, but, according to Surgeon White, ‘while under the ladder, with the rope about his neck, he was offered his free pardon on condition of performing the duty of the common executioner as long as he remained in this country; which, after some little pause, he reluctantly accepted’.[16] The hanging tree was strategically placed between the tents of the male and female convicts on the west side of the settlement. Lashings of varying vigour were also administered there. Justice was to be seen to be done and the convicts were required to attend these sombre occasions.

By contrast, the fate of an ‘elderly woman convict’ was happier. Found with a flat iron among her possessions and charged with theft, the moment she was left alone she attempted to hang herself on the ridge pole of her tent and, discovered, ‘was cut down before it was too late’.

Meanwhile the Civil Court for more trivial cases, administered by the two Magistrates Phillip had commissioned, Judge Advocate Collins and Surveyor-General Alt, were kept hard at work. Heavy lashings were a common punishment, usually 100 with less for women. Nonetheless White was reporting in his Journal that ‘Thefts and depredations on one another had become so very frequent and glaring among the convicts, that scarcely a day passes without some of these miserable delinquents being punished. So hardened in wickedness and depravity are many of them, that they seem insensible to the fear of corporal punishment, or even death itself’.[17]

As work on the stores and other government installations moved forward, Phillip informed the male convicts of his ‘work balance’ plan by which they could complete their assigned work of clearing land or building government works from dawn until lunch time and were then free – as the provision of vegetables was a first necessity in the settlement – to attend to constructing their own huts and working in their own gardens. There were other initiatives. Among his Instructions Phillip had received a directive to establish an auxiliary settlement on Norfolk Island, which Cook had discovered and which Britain was anxious to prevent falling into foreign hands. In addition to its strategic value, the island offered items of interest to a naval nation in its flax for sail making, hemp for ropes, and good mast timber. Commissioned by Phillip as Superintendent of the island, Lieutenant Philip Gidley King departed in command of the Supply on 15 February carrying provisions and five men, a surgeon, fifteen selected male convicts and five of the ‘worthy’ women among the six women convicts.

Rev. Johnson had planted the flag of religion in the colony with the first ‘church’ service held at Sydney Cove on Sunday 3 February and, encouraged by the Governor in his early address, two convict marriages took place the following Sunday. By 16 February there were some twenty-nine more marriages in the belief – mistaken as it proved – that married couples ‘would receive various little comforts and indulgence’. Enlightened, many were soon eager for release from these formal bonds.

Meanwhile, Phillip was extending his reach of knowledge outwards. Two officers from the Sirius, his second-in-command Captain John Hunter, and first Lieutenant William Bradley, had begun making provisional examination of the Harbour on 28 and 29 January and conducted a thorough harbour survey on 5-6 February, penetrating the many inlets in a six-oared boat and marking multiple depths with great exactitude. ‘The Harbour is navigable for ships 12 miles E. and W. and the branches extend 6 miles N. and S.’, Bradley reported confidently. ‘It is one continuation of Harbour within Harbour formed by snug Coves with good depth of water and fresh water in many of them’.[18] Phillip joined them on their further survey ‘up the harbour’ on 15 February and, at the beginning of March, to Broken Bay, where they explored the Bay’s northern part. Here, Phillip, with his naval officer’s experienced eye, thought one branch was ‘the finest piece of water I ever saw’ and honoured it with the name of Pitt Water after the British Prime Minister.[19]

In William Bradley the Governor had found a remarkable officer, a brilliant cartographer who, in the course of his time in the southern hemisphere, compiled 22 detailed, meticulously drawn charts, some 18 related to Australia and New Zealand, and presented posterity with a legacy of 29 delicate watercolours of scenes of Sydney and of the Indigenous people. At the end of that active month of February, with the foundations of settlement in ordered place, Phillip invited Bradley to draw a Map of the colonial encampment. Titled ‘Map, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1788 by William Bradley’, it bears the cartographer’s scrupulous note: ‘the position of the encampment & buildings are as they stood at 1 March, 1788’.

The map, with its strong colour coding of the buildings in the civil, convict and military areas, set against the narrow harbour cove denotes ‘Circular Quay’, ‘Wharf’, the stream (unnamed) with surrounding dots of undergrowth; on its east side, ‘Governor’s Garden’ with flag and unmarked house, fronted by ‘Guard’, and directly behind ‘Provost house’ and the ‘Governor Commissary Store. Above these, separated by the extending Governor’s Garden were the ‘Female Convict Tents’ fronted by the houses of the ‘Judge’ and ‘Parson’ which segregated the female tents from the ‘Men Convict Tents’ situated beside the entrance of the incoming freshwater stream. Beyond, on the northerly side of the encampment, was the ‘Surveyor’s Marquee’. The ‘Blacksmith’, alone, was placed directly beside the stream in front of the Guard on the east side. On the west side of the stream, at its northerly entrance point, is a further patch of ‘Governor Garden’ and below it the ‘Cooking Place’, the ‘Marine Encampment’ and ‘Parade’, two ‘Store’ buildings separated by a ‘Guard’, and a larger ‘Men Convicts’ Tents’ and ‘Women Convicts’ Tents’. At some distance on the shore of the cove on the west side stand the ‘Bakehouse’, ‘Oven’, ‘Guards’, the ‘Hospital’ and its ‘Garden,’ and two ‘Wells’. To the south, further distant on the high shore denoted by a sketched rocky surround at its base, is the ‘Observatory’. Many of the described structures and placements would be developed and built across the year of 1788. In Tench’s reckoning, there were 900 British inhabitants in the colony in March 1788.

Extending his map south into the harbour edging Sydney Cove, Bradley scattered the water with myriad depth soundings – the safety of ships was crucial – with the eleven ships of the First Fleet drawn in position together with their anchors and ropes. Observing this singular, delicately drawn plan, the reader experiences a deep sense of order and conceptual care. Bradley’s deft illustration brought Governor Phillip’s definitive planning of the initial encampment to permanent view and provided the first map of Australia’s colonial settlement.

Diversely talented as cartographer and artist, Bradley made several further contributions to the knowledge of Australia. Drawing on his keen meteorological interests, he also kept records in his Weather Journal of the daily noon temperature from December 1787, throughout the First Fleet’s journey, and across the period from 27 January to 13 September 1788 of the settlement at Port Jackson. Compared with contemporary temperature measurements taken at Sydney Observatory Hill, these founding records reveal a striking correlation and accuracy and today form an important component of an international measurement effort to recover historical weather data – The Google Earth records by the UK Meteorological Office, a part of the Atmosphere Circulation Reconstruction over the Earth (ACRE) initiative.

Phillip would secure this outstanding officer’s promotion as master and commander, and on his return to Britain in 1792, Bradley rose to become successively captain and rear admiral. ‘Bradley’s Head’ on the northern shore of Sydney Harbour carries his name.

Significantly, Arthur Phillip’s governance was to leave a singular imprint on the place of women in the colony. Protected from seamen and male convicts, well fed, and treated with manifest care by the ships’ surgeons on the outward journey, the women convicts carried high expectations with them when they landed in the settlement. There they encountered not a garrison town framed by marching, military procedures and the violence connected with its purpose, but a society conscious of the rights of the whole community. Twenty babies had been born on the thirty-six weeks journey, three were baptised by the Rev Johnson on 3 February, and the participation of some fifty children and their mothers in the earliest days of settlement was a salient feature of the young colony. As historian Alan Atkinson writes, ‘Women’s experience set the pace for the entire European project in Australia’.[20] Phillip’s belief in the sanctity of women conferred a certain authority on them and they were given to hope for more in their own lives. From the beginning they believed in their rights and that they ‘might demand humanity from their rulers’.[21] The procedures of the Civil Court underscored this belief. The women convicts looked to the court to override the power men chose to exert over them, to decide questions of insults and relationship assaults, to consider matters affecting health and children, and to attend to trivial disputes among themselves. It was clearly recognised that women had rights and priorities of their own, passive rights presumably, ‘but absolute all the same’.

It was also notable that the women were not officially required to work. The heavy and regular work of settlement was allocated to the men, the women being expected to make their own and the men’s clothing and attend to the children. The presence of family proved integral to the settlement. Thirty-one marines brought a wife and together some twenty-three children to the colony. Among the convicts there were at least two sets of brothers in the First Fleet and at least two cases of convict brothers and sisters. And, alert to the importance of close relationships, Phillip had dispatched four-year-old Edward Parkinson, and Mary Fowles, the seven-year-old daughter of a convict woman, to add this dimension to the community on Norfolk Island.

The Governor’s encouragement of marriage was an important part of his concern for the contribution of families to the new society. As a result, soon after the placing of the assigned tents, the male convicts were allowed to visit the women with a view to marriage, and time was allowed for the women to make arrangements with men they had known before sailing. The most abandoned were encouraged to become prostitutes.[22] By the end of 1788 some seventy marriages had been celebrated in the colony although ‘declared divorces’ were not infrequent.

There were many degrees of diversity. Tench, who was given the task of checking convicts’ letters before being sent, was impressed by the convicts’ correspondence, finding that they were not, as generally reported, ‘ignorant and untaught’. Over half the male convicts were literate and a quarter of the women had enough schooling to sign their own names although early communications from the women was scant. One writing home, however, complained that ‘they were deprived of tea and other things they were indulged in on the passage by seamen, and all were making do with the worn ‘cloaths’ they had been set out in. But there was evidence of contentment and, in Tench’s view expressed in October, of ‘the highest state of health’ and ‘the convicts continue to behave extremely well’.[23] In that convict colony, despite many current misrepresentations, the records show no occasion when either male or female convicts expressed criticism of the Governor himself. Indeed, the majority savoured what the new regime offered and what historian Alan Atkinson aptly defines as ‘the life-giving safety it offered … among a population so raw and mobile and in a place so wholly strange’.[24]

One of the serious challenges for order and harmony in the settlement came, not from the founding company of men and women convicts secured there on terms of good behaviour, but from the attitude of the marine officers. As Commander in Chief, Phillip was in command of both the naval and marine forces and, ably served by his naval officers, he sought a measure of co-operation from the marine officers that ran against the grain of their tradition. Major Ross and his officers (with the exception of such prominent figures as Collins, Tench and William Dawes) refused to do anything other than guard duty, claiming that they were neither gaolers, nor supervisors or policemen. Hampered by a lack of formal laws to underpin his authority in this, Phillip suffered from their persistent stonewalling and discontent, and their clear disregard of his principles for a participatory society. There was, accordingly, no such thing as a police force in the colony, the planners had sent no overseers, and the Governor was obliged to look to the convicts themselves, the majority serving the customary sentence of seven years, to carry out the task of policing. The ‘Nightwatch’, formed in August 1788, marked the first attempt to establish some form of policing and control and, given their common fate, the first convicts selected for the role proved fearful in themselves and very unpopular with their fellows.

The problem of how to deal with convicts whose seven-year sentence was soon to expire would come to confront Phillip in 1789. But, as Judge Advocate Collins reflected, despite an early tendency in the infancy of the colony to consider their freedom, ‘the price of provisions in this country would certainly have been found equal, if not superior, to any value they could have set upon their time and labour, and ‘little was to be gained by their being restored to the rights and privileges of free people, as no one was in possession of such abundance as to afford to support another independent of the public store’.[25]

There was also a notable difference between the mindset of the naval officers and the officers from the Marine Corps. The naval officers conducted their professional duties with pride and purpose as in any station, but the marine officers, deprived of normal garrison soldiering, endured empty days with jobs little to their taste. ‘Those hours, which in other countries are devoted to martial acquirements’, Tench observed, ‘were here consumed in the labours of the sawpit, the forge and the quarry’.[26] Disaffected, they marked a subversive threat to the fragile civil order of the colony.

One aspect of the colony of interest from the outset was the surprising multiculturalism of the community. While the European settlement was predominantly British, there was a mixture of nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. Some eight seamen were natives of Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia, and there were four negroes of likely West Indian or American background who had escaped to England, among the male convicts, all offering a sense of difference. Evidence suggests that men and women coming from the same counties or regions in the United Kingdom rarely sought each other out. Convicts had mixed with each other on the outward journey, forming new friendships, and change itself and new opportunities appeared to overrun the boundaries between regions and dialects providing an incipient sense of nationhood. From the beginning convicts lived together in groups of various sizes, sharing a roof often put up by their joint labour, together with a fire and cooking implements. They made their own choice as to who they shared with. The presence of Irish convicts, with their own rising sense of nationalism, began to emerge with the Second Fleet in 1790 and grew when, and after, ships sailed directly from Ireland in 1791.

As the trajectory of settlement moved forward there were occasional public celebrations. The King’s Birthday was roundly commemorated on the edge of the distant shore on 4 June 1788 with 21 guns fired at sunrise, noon and sunset, flags flying on every ship, a days’ holiday for the whole community while all the officers not on duty, both naval and marine, dined with the Governor. The soldiers drank the King’s health in porter and the convicts were allowed half a pint of rum. The governor also issued a free pardon to the three convicts then in confinement for trial. The name of ‘Sydney’ for the encampment was swiftly in the currency. Explorations of survey extended out from the settlement in attempts to disentangle the surrounding river systems. Phillip’s commitment to Gardens extended. A farm was established on the site of the Botanic Gardens under the charge of Henry Dodd who had agricultural skills. And, early in November, a public garden was set up on fertile ground sixteen miles inland at ‘Rose Hill’ to serve as a food source and seed bank. Placed under Dodd it was serviced by a hundred convicts and a detachment of marines. In time Rose Hill would transfer to the Governor’s seat at Parramatta. It marked the early development of the necessary training of convicts for the further extension of public agricultural gardens.

By the year’s end, modest small houses with their own gardens were also replacing the marines’ tents; the garrison was at last structured, and what Tench called ‘little edifices’ for the convicts quickly multiplied on the ground allotted to them. The hospital was expanded into a stouter structure and used extensively under Surgeon White as dysentery and scurvy spread early in the settlement and the cold, rainy months of June – July brought a further horde of patients – up to 200 more – to its rudimentary wards. Shortages of such vital materials as blankets and sheets and adequate medications remained a pressing need. In early October when the first harvest had failed and the settlement was facing early food shortages, the Sirius was sent under Captain Hunter’s command to Cape Town to acquire flour, seed grain and medical supplies. The challenges of the first winter season were sharp. Closing his monthly despatch to Lord Sydney on 9 July, Phillip could not refrain from remarking that while he did not doubt ‘that this country will prove the most valuable acquisition Great Britain ever made; at the same time no country offers less assistance to the first settlers than this does; nor do I think any country could be more disadvantageously placed with respect to support from the mother country, on which for a few years we must entirely depend’.[27] The departure in April of the three convict transports, Lady Penrhyn, Charlotte and Scarborough, having discharged their stores, followed in July by Alexander, Friendship, and the Prince of Wales, heightened the settlement’s sense of mounting independence.

Throughout these founding months, as the Sirius crew hauled the ‘seines’ (the nets) enriching the population’s provisions with fish, the courts kept up their careful duties of trying cases, trivial and severe, attending to the critical theft of stores and livestock, to assault and molestation, insolence, and small-time convict conflict, and decreeing punishments of 25 up to 100 lashings, and a rare execution. Phillip proved an attentive final arbiter given to reducing, moderating, waiving but never increasing sentences. Tensions between Major Ross and the Governor remained a dominant and fractious feature of the colony’s affairs while many of the marine officers persisted in their complaints of excessive guard duty and their aversion to the responsibility for sitting as members of the criminal court.

Against this backdrop, one of Arthur Phillip’s great achievements during that first foundation year, and into the next, was the relationship he cultivated with the Indigenous people. Clear principles had been enunciated in Britain before he departed. The shedding of native blood was prohibited as a crime of the highest nature and the Indigenous people could not be deprived of their land without consent. These principles, conveyed originally to Cook by the President of the Royal Society of London, Lord Morton, became part of Phillip’s personal lexicon. Over and above his despatches home, the Governor’s record and approach in this crucial interchange of cultures derives largely from the writings of key members of his team: David Collins, William Bradley, Watkin Tench, John Hunter and the surgeons, John White and George Worgan.

With the Fleet’s arrival at Botany Bay, Worgan on board Sirius described the Europeans first impression of the Aborigines. ‘As we were sailing in’, he wrote to his brother in England, ‘we saw 8 or 10 of the Natives sitting on the rocks on the south shore, and as the ships bordered pretty near thereto we could hear them hollow and observe them talking to one another very earnestly, at the same time pointing towards the ships; they were of a black reddish sooty colour, entirely naked, walked very upright, and each of them had long spears and short sticks in their hands. Soon after the ships had anchored the Indians went up into the wood, lit a fire, and sat around unconcerned (apparently) as tho’ nothing had occurred to them’.[28] Phillip and John Hunter went ashore and the locals coming down but seeing the boats approaching ‘scampered up into the woods again with great precipitation’. On this experience, Worgan commented, ‘the Governor advised that we should seem quite indifferent about them, and this apparent indifference had a good effect, for they very soon appeared in sight of us when the Governor held up some beads, red cloth & other baubles’.[29] Signifying peacefulness, the Governor showed the Aborigines his musket, then laid it on the ground. Then ‘one of the oldest of the Natives gave his spears to a younger, and approached to meet the Governor’. Even so there were signs of ‘fear and distrust’ but, with the presentation of trinkets, ‘they began to show a confidence, and became very familiar, and curious about our clothes’.[30] The following day the Governor and his party went on shore again and, meeting the Indigenous men, ‘they all of them in a short time became confident, familiar & vastly funny; … laughed when we laughed, jumped extravagantly, and grunted by way of music & repeated many words and phrases after us’.[31]

As historian Inga Clendinnen sums up in her book Dancing with Strangers, in the sheer unexpectedness of the meeting between these two very different cultures, the Australians and the British began their relationship by ‘dancing together’.[32] This dance continued when the ships moved to Port Jackson. On 29 January William Bradley, conducting his first examination of the harbour, made contact with the Aborigines when a group of unarmed men, sporting rags on their head received from Phillip and his party the previous week, pointed the approaching long boat to a good landing place with ‘shouting and dancing’. At Spring Cove the next day there was another impromptu dance party when some dozen men came in, leaving their spears in their canoes as a sign of friendship, and began ‘dancing and otherwise amusing themselves’. Bradley would capture the scene of a group of the British visitors dancing jauntily hand in hand with the Aborigines on the shore ‘like children at a picnic’, in his watercolour, ‘View in Broken Bay, New South Wales, March 1788’.

The officers of Phillip’s team were deeply fascinated by the Aborigines, their Journals filled with accounts of their meetings and long descriptions of the physiques of the inhabitants. They soon learnt that they were not dealing with one people, but a dispersion of different groups of the Eora people that required a repetition in their overtures of friendship. Eager to comprehend, they turned their interest on how these very different people related to each other, what signs there were of status or hierarchy, what systems of governance ordered their affairs. In one early encounter Bradley recorded that ‘a black man [from among the negro convicts] was landed among the working party with whom the Natives were much pleased & seemed astonished that he did not understand them, they wished him to stay with them & followed the boat that he was in as far as they could’.[33] ‘They all expressed great curiosity as to our sex; having our beards shaved & being clothed, they could not tell what to take us for’.[34] They were soon enlightened when one of the young seamen was ordered by Lieutenant King to drops his pants, an act greeted by the locals with much whooping, delight and ‘a great shout of admiration’. Only King himself stopped briefly to muse, ‘I think it very easy to conceive ye ridiculous figure we must appear to these poor creatures, who were perfectly naked’.[35]

Phillip’s approach to the Eora people was positive and outgoing from the start. His precise instructions required him to ‘endeavour by every possible means to open an intercourse with the natives, and to conciliate their affections’, and to enjoin his British subjects to ‘live in amity and kindness with them’.[36] He was also enabled to punish those who made ‘any unnecessary interruption in the exercise of their [the Indigenous] several occupations’.[37] A true man of the Enlightenment, he had a distinct concept of a civilised society and, hoped ‘to cultivate an acquaintance with them without their having an idea of our great superiority over them, that their confidence & friendship might be more firmly fixed’.[38]

After his first meetings at Botany Bay, Phillip was in frequent contact with the Port Jackson Eora. There he often found himself in company with large numbers of them. Writing in February 1788, reflecting on Cook’s very different experience of fugitive and unfriendly natives, at Botany Bay, he asserted: ‘The Natives are far more numerous than expected. I reckon from fourteen, to Sixteen hundred, in this Harbour, Broken Bay, and Botany Bay, and [I] once fell in with Two hundred and twelve Men in one party’.[39] ‘I have reason to think’, he added, ‘that the Men do not want personal Courage they readily place a Confidence, and Appear to be a friendly inoffensive people, unless made Angry,’ with what Phillip saw as ‘the Most trifling Circumstances’.[40] On his Pittwater excursion, he gave the name ‘Manly’ to a cove to honour the men he met there. And going forth, it became his custom to greet the people with his arms open and outstretched, or with a handshake, the muskets laid clearly visible on the ground. ‘He dealt in an open manner with large parties’, Tench reported. On an excursion between Port Jackson and Botany Bay, the Governor fell in with a party ‘of more than three hundred persons, two hundred and twelve of whom were men’.[41] In his manifestly accessible approach, Phillip remained serene in his belief that he could keep the British and the Indigenous people on peaceful terms as part of his polity as long as they were under observation.

The role of the Aboriginal women was of particular interest to the officers. However, they were consistently protected by the men. On 29 January, Bradley writes that when an older woman came on to the beach appearing ‘feeble with old age, very dark & ugly’ we had some hopes that the others who we saw on the beach close by the woods would allow us to interview her.[42] ‘(A)s we approached them they ran away…and had a party of very stout armed men near them’.[43] Many entreaties were used without effect. Later that day the younger women began, tremulously, to come forward in the company of ‘an Old Man’ to receive ornaments from the visitors on their longboat. ‘The whole of this time the men, who kept their lances ready were silent & attentive to what was doing’.[44]

So the relationship between the people of the land and the newcomers proceeded always with the evidence on both sides of weaponry in view. Surgeon White reported early at Botany Bay, that one of the officers had fired a bullet through ‘a shield of a plain appearance, made of bark of the cork tree sufficient to ward off or turn their own weapons’ and was asked whether the ball could pass through a man’s body.[45] ‘It is a Weapon’, Worgan noted, ‘that keeps them in great Awe’.[46] Hence even as the dance went on at Botany Bay, there were men in the picture holding guns. As historian Grace Karskens sums up, below the ‘humorous and poignant stories, was that undertow of implacable intention – to establish a colony and take the land – backed up with ‘superiority’ and with guns’.[47] The muskets and the colourful military jackets of the officers were constant and conspicuous reminders of intent and power. The practical Collins had recognised the warning cries of the Aborigines as the ships entered Botany Bay: ‘Warra, warra, warra’, go away.

Phillip, however, went to intense lengths to understand and befriend the Indigenous people. On the very last days of his first year as governor two officers had rowed into Manly Cove and lured two local men by the offer of gifts, pulling them, resisting, onto the boat. One got away, the other, Arabanoo, was overpowered and taken to the settlement. Placed in a tub, cleaned and clothed, after his first fright he was, according to his captors, of a docile temperament and quickly accustomed himself to captivity. Tench was especially enthralled by Arabanoo and learnt much from him while Arabanoo was eager to teach him his language. A gentle man, he also, Tench observed, had a strong sense of his own worth and ‘allowed of no superiority on our part. He knew that he was in our power; but the independence of his mind never forsook him’.[48] Arabanoo stayed on comfortable terms with the newcomers, living within the settlement, until he, too, died in May 1789 from the smallpox that brought catastrophe and decimation to half the Indigenous population, the black corpses massing on the beaches and in the caves. John Hunter went so far as to suggest that, had Arabanoo lived, ‘he could have made them [his people] perfectly understand, that we wished to live with them on the most friendly footing, and that we wished to promote, as much as might be in our power, their comfort and happiness’.[49]

In this early benign year Phillip showed both courage and vision in his attempts to secure the local people’s friendship and trust. As Inga Clendinnen suggests from her deep study, ‘Despite or perhaps because of the width of the cultural chasm between the two peoples, each initially viewed the other as objects not of threat, but of curiosity and amusement; through those early encounters each came to recognise the other as fellow-humans, fully participant in a shared humanity’.[50] There were signs of caution; convicts occasionally ‘interrupted’ or came to grief from Aboriginal responses. When the British arrived, the local people were, as Clendinnen points out, one of the few hunter-gatherer societies left on earth and for the Eora people around Sydney Cove, their seasonal resources were essential for their survival. The British, for their part, saw the environment as a ‘wild’ and empty land and were insensitive to the fragility of the nomad economy. While the visitors shared food at times with the locals from their ship’s fishing seines, the Indigenous inhabitants depended essentially on the economy of their own land and faced the immediate acquisition of their reliable water supply and their grassy shoreline.

1788, then, was marked by welcome contact and accommodation. In November of the settlement’s second year Phillip, seeking closer knowledge, placed the reluctant Lieutenant Bradley in charge of kidnapping two more Aborigines, an older man Colbee (or Coleby) and a younger one named Baneelon, subsequently known as Bennelong. Colbee escaped within a week while Bennelong remained in captivity. Bradley recalled the distressing scene of ambushing the two men onto a longboat as ‘by far the most unpleasant service I ever was ordered to Execute’.[51] Bennelong, however, remained a cheerful captive, swiftly adopting British manners, their food and clothing and establishing an intimate relationship with Phillip whom he named ‘father’ until, after five months, he decided to escape back to his own people. The matter came to a head on 7 September 1790 when Phillip was speared at Manly Cove among a throng of Aborigines numbering Bennelong among them.

Arriving on shore the Governor, stepping forth in his confident fashion, met a strangely silent gathering. Bennelong reportedly (for there were several versions from the British observers) laid a 12-foot long spear with its single wooden barb in front of the assailant. As Phillip walked forward with a hand outstretched, the assailant flicked the spear to his hand with his foot and threw it violently towards him. It entered Phillip above his right clavicle and exited high on his back protruding just behind the shoulder blade and close to the backbone. Midshipman Henry Waterhouse, who accompanied the Governor, attempted, inexpertly, to extract the dangerously long shaft. Bleeding strongly Phillip was lifted into one of the boats, rowed for two hours, and reached his own house and bed where he expected to die. Not so. Given the structure of the spear with its one wooden barb, it had passed through his body without doing damage to any anatomical structure. In six weeks he was able to get around again. Recovering, Phillip at once declared that there was to be no retaliation. Rather there was reconciliation with Bennelong who returned in some triumph to live in continuous habitation with members of his people in his new allies’ encampment.

Was the dramatic spearing a feint, or a tribal message? Was it a piece of ceremonial theatre or a punitive ritual to settle grievances against the British? Whatever, Phillip’s approach of resolute optimism held firm, a position he maintained throughout the period of further interaction and influence until he left the colony in December 1792. As Clendinnen sums up, Governor Phillip brought to his relationship with the Aboriginal people, ‘a determination rare, possibly unique, in the gruff annals of imperialism’.[52] Clearly the purpose, trust and courage he directed to the process of conciliation in that first experimental year provided an important working basis for a complex, ongoing cross-cultural exchange. In Clendinnen’s eye it was a ‘springtime of trust’.[53] For Alan Atkinson it signalled ‘the high-water mark of early race relations’ in Australia.[54]

On the larger canvas of the developing colony in New South Wales, Arthur Phillip also left an exceptional mark. Combining discipline and order with leniency and intellectual authority with a deep personal commitment, from 1788 he offered both a vision and a sense of opportunity and shared humanity to the banished people who had inherited the role of pioneers. The role and power of the Governor was, ‘the thread on which all else hung’. Reflecting on Phillip’s piece by piece, ‘hard-edged, painstaking humanity’ which Phillip himself saw as replacing in part an old regulated regime to create a new understanding of power and responsibility, Atkinson’s conclusion is resonant. Although this ‘was a hard and strange country, especially for the weak’, he writes, ‘under European settlement a certain grace clearly issued from it’.[55]

* The author is grateful to Christine Fernon and Merle Hunt for editorial assistance.


  • Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia: A History. The Beginning. Volume 1. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1997. I am greatly indebted to this work of scholarship.
  • Bradley, William, A Voyage to New South Wales, the Journal of Lieutenant William Bradley, RN of HMS Sirius 1786-1792. The Trustees of the Public Library of New South Wales, with Ure Smith, Sydney, 1969.
  • Bradley, William, Journals, Charts and Drawings. These were first publicly discovered in 1924 and acquired by the State Library of New South Wales. The Map and Journal have been digitised.
  • Cathcart, Michael, The Water Dreamers. Text Publishing Melbourne, 2009, Chapter 2, ‘The Tank Stream’.
  • Clendinnen, Inga, Dancing with Strangers. Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2003.
  • Cobley, John (ed), Sydney Cove: 1788, Hodder and Stoughton, Great Britain, 1962.
  • Collins, David, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales. London 1798. Australiana Facsimile Editions No 76, Adelaide Libraries Board of South Australia 1971. Of all the Journals of the period, this source provides the most detailed account.
  • Eldershaw, M. Barnard, Phillip of Australia. Discovery Press, Penrith, 1972.
  • Frost, Alan, Arthur Phillip 1738-1814. His Voyaging. Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1987.
  • Gillen, Mollie, The Founders of Australia. A Biographical Dictionary of the First Fleet. Library of Australian History, Sydney, 1989.
  • Hill, David, First Fleet Surgeon, The Voyage of Arthur Bowes Smyth. NLA Publishing, 2015.
  • Hirst, John, Freedom on the Fatal Shore. Australia’s First Colony. Black Inc. Melbourne, 2008.
  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vol 1, Governors’ Despatches to and From England, Library Committee of the Commonwealth Parliament, Sydney, 1914.
  • Historical Records of New South Wales, vol 1, part 2, Phillip 1783-1792, Government Printer, Sydney, 1892.
  • Holmes, Robert, Orphans of History. The Forgotten Children of the First Fleet. Text Publishing Melbourne, 2000.
  • Hunter, Captain John, An Historical Journey of Events at Sydney and at Sea 1787-1792. Royal Australia Historical Society and Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1968.
  • Karskens, Grace, The Colony. A History of Early Sydney. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2010.
  • Pembroke, Michael, Arthur Phillip. Sailor Mercenary Governor Spy. Hardie Grant Books, Victoria, 2013.
  • Smyth, Arthur Bowes, The Journal of Arthur Bowes Smyth: Surgeon Lady Penhryn, 1787-1789, edited by Paul G. Fidlon and R. J. Ryan, Australian Documents Library, Sydney, 1979.
  • Tench, Watkin, Sydney’s First Four Years. A reprint of ‘A Narrative of the Expedition to Botany Bay’ and ‘A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson’ by Captain Watkin Tench with an Introduction by L. F. Fitzhardinge, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1961.
  • White, John, Journal of a Voyage to New South Wales, Arno Press and the New York Times, NY, 1971 in Physician Travellers Series.
  • Worgan, George, Sydney Cove Journal, 20 January – 11 July 1788. Edited with an Introduction and Notes by John Currey, The Banks Society, Malvern Victoria, 2009.

Citation details

Ann Moyal, 'Arthur Phillip: 1788. The Foundation Year', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, originally published 21 August 2017, accessed 18 July 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

William Bradley, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1 March 1788

William Bradley, Sydney Cove, Port Jackson, 1 March 1788

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